By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
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PORT ANGELES -- Top officials from the North Olympic Peninsula's three hospital districts agreed a partnership with a larger hospital could benefit local hospitals and the patients they serve.
But the boards of Olympic Medical Center, Jefferson Healthcare and Forks Community Hospital could not reach a consensus on a top potential affiliate from the seven that responded to a request for information.
Olympic Medical Center hosted a joint workshop with the boards of the Forks- and Port Townsend-based hospitals Wednesday in Port Angeles.
It was a follow-up to a similar meeting held last year at Lake Chelan.
A potential "tertiary medical center affiliation" dominated the 90-minute workshop.
Chief executives of all three hospitals agreed to gather more feedback from their boards and medical staffs, continue their discussions and try to select an affiliate by the first quarter of next year.
Exact details still unclear
The exact details of how the partnership would work are still unclear.
The idea is for the smaller hospitals to refer their patients to a larger hospital for specialized care they can't get on the Peninsula.
In return for receiving patients, the tertiary affiliate would refer patients back to Peninsula hospitals for follow-up care, and help the rural hospitals recruit doctors and implement improvements such as information technology and electronic medical records.
Choice 'never taken away'
Whether it happens or not, OMC Commissioner Jim Cammack emphasized that patient choice and physician choice is "never going to be taken away."
"It should be pointed out that the goal of all three hospitals is to remain independent, community-owned public hospital districts," OMC Chief Executive Officer Eric Lewis said.
"Patient choice will remain, and physician choice will remain."
As a group, the three Peninsula hospitals sent requests for information to seven medical centers in early September. All seven responded.
• Franciscan Health Systems, based in Tacoma.
• Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton.
• MultiCare, based in Tacoma.
• Providence Health & Services, based in Seattle.
• Swedish Medical Center, based in Seattle.
• University of Washington Medicine, based in Seattle.
• Virginia Mason Medical Center, based in Seattle.
The CEOs of the three local hospitals said they were impressed by the responses.
"It's really about earning referrals based on quality and service and value to the patient," Lewis said.
"You've added value, you've made it easier, you've made it so they can have more local services and they're going to the best possible place they can go. The handoffs are clean back and forth.
"There's lots of potential advantages for our communities."
Jefferson Healthcare CEO Mike Glenn said Jefferson County residents would benefit from having access to more physicians.
"Right now we have erratic specialist coverage at times," Glenn said.
"When they're there, it's great, but when they're not it's sub-optimal.
"I think what is most compelling about this is the enhancement in patient safety and quality improvement."
Forks Community Hospital Administrator Camille Scott said the partner would need to be "innovative" and "creative" because specialists can't always be in a rural area like the West End of Clallam County.
"We're not asking for like-systems to merge," Scott said.
"We're not looking or someone to buy us out. We're not looking to be a true affiliate.
"We're looking for a partner that is willing to work with rural and that isn't going to have 'one size fits all.'"
Selecting a tertiary hospital that cares for uninsured patients would be another top priority for Forks, Scott said.
"We're looking at individual, independent entities supporting each other so we do the best for people in our community," Scott said.
An early poll of OMC's board favored Swedish, Providence and Harrison as a top three.
Jefferson Healthcare's board did not take a poll, but Commissioner and Chief Governing Officer Jill Buhler said Harrison "has got to be a player" because of its proximity to Jefferson County and especially to the Port Ludlow area.
Forks Community Hospital Commissioner and President Gerry Lane said University of Washington Medicine's proposal said it has never turned away a patient who needed care because of an inability to pay.
"For a facility like ours, that's a really important thing," he said.
As the discussion continued, board members from each hospital varied on their top choices.
No formal poll was taken on Wednesday.
Lewis said a model for the potential affiliation is OMC's partnership with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. He said the eight-year affiliation has improved cancer care on the Peninsula.
"It's helped us recruit physicians," Lewis said.
"It's helped us bring research and protocols. ... It's helped us in our quality and patient safety. It's been a very positive development of our cancer center.
"And looking at our cancer center, we said 'Why can we do that in cardiology, orthopedic surgery?' Neurology is another example."
Cammack said cost savings are going to be "very important" in the future of health care.
"There's an uncertainty out there right now," he said.
Glenn said: "I think we're very excited and very interested in taking this to the next level and beginning the hard work of trying to optimize the opportunity."
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.