PORT ANGELES — Two candidates running for Olympic Medical Center’s Sequim-area hospital commissioner position are on opposite sides of the COVID-19 vaccine mandate debate.
Jim McEntire, 71, former Clallam County and Port of Port Angeles commissioner and a retired Coast Guard captain, has run for several elected positions since he moved to the North Olympic Peninsula in 2006.
Incumbent Tom Oblak, 73, who said he worked for 47 years in hospital operations and governance before retiring, was appointed in 2012 to fill the position vacated by the late Arlene Engel. He did not face opposition when running in 2013 for his first six-year term.
Oblak and McEntire faced off Tuesday at a Port Angeles Business Association Nov. 2 general election forum on the District 1, Position 2 seat, which will be decided by all hospital tax district voters from Blyn to Beaver. Ballots will be mailed out Oct. 13.
The candidates were asked why the hospital commissioners did not require district employees to be vaccinated as a condition of employment before Gov. Jay Inslee required it Aug. 9 for state employees and health care workers by Oct. 18.
As of the end of July, 24.8 percent of employees — 407 of the hospital’s 1,640 workers — were not fully vaccinated at Olympic Medical Center, a percentage that had shrunk to 21 percent as of Tuesday.
“The problem you have is also occurring in our military service branches,” Oblak said.
“The primary reason why they could not provide the vaccine to those who did not want it [was] because of [Federal Drug Administration] approval. Early on, the FDA deemed the COVID vaccine as an experimental drug. Just recently, they gave it its final approval.
“Since that final approval, you’ve seen a lot of companies and a lot of hospitals and a lot of other organizations mandate vaccines.
“It’s a mandate, we have to follow it, and I support it.”
The FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use authorization and did not deem it experimental. The FDA gave its final approval Aug. 23.
Oblak corrected himself in a later interview Tuesday. He and all other hospital commissioners were vaccinated before the FDA gave its final approval.
“I incorrectly called the vaccine experimental,” he said in the interview.
“It was actually emergency [use authorization].
“I just misspoke, period,” Oblak said.
He said the commissioners did not have the authority to mandate vaccinations.
“Even the military did not have the authority to mandate it for their troops,” he said.
OMC legal counsel Jennifer Burkhardt said Tuesday that it was unclear if the commissioners had the power to unilaterally order the vaccination of employees. Unions would have to be part of that decision, she said.
“With respect to OMC staff, I’m not a big fan of mandates,” McEntire said.
“I tend to trust the good judgment and the intelligence of hospital staff,” he said, adding he was unaware of COVID being contracted from contact at the hospital.
“The hospital staff that have contracted it is somewhere outside the hospital,” McEntire said.
“So that tells me that hospital district, the clinics, all of the physical places that patients come, is doing a very good job at infection control.”
He cited individual health choices and favored urging staff to get vaccinated, which OMC has done.
“I would hate to put it to people [that] it’s either your job or a jab,” McEntire said. “I just tend to not go with that.”
He said Wednesday he has been vaccinated.
McEntire, an organizer of the conservative Sequim-based Independent Advisory Association, successfully ran for Clallam County commissioner as a Republican in 2011 while serving as a Port of Port Angeles commissioner, serving one term before losing in 2015 to Democrat Mark Ozias.
In two tries for a state legislative seat, McEntire lost to Democratic 24th District Position 2 incumbent state Rep. Steve Tharinger in 2010 and 2018.
He ran unopposed for the port position in 2007, a year after he moved to Sequim, quitting with two years left before his term was up after winning the county commissioner seat.
McEntire said his priorities include preparedness planning for the Cascadia earthquake, federal Medicare reimbursements to OMC, and dealing with the fact that OMC “is not the only game in town” among health care providers.
He said his experience working on large budgets and strategic planning for the Coast Guard and the federal Departments of Transportation and Labor, as well as his time as a county commissioner, well suit him to serve as a hospital commissioner.
Oblak’s goals include keeping the hospital locally owned, expanding primary care services and improving wait times in the emergency department.
His accomplishments while on the board include OMC being named one of the top rural hospitals in the U.S. for consecutive years, OMC being one of the first hospitals in the nation to receive a prevention infection certification, and the hospital’s transparency in pricing of services.
McEntire said the hospital district can learn from other providers if they are providing medical services cheaper and better than OMC.
“I’m very confident we match up well in terms of quality and price, but there are always improvements that can be made,” he said.
Oblak said hospital clinics are at a disadvantage with free-standing clinics.
“There is a Medicare rule that any outpatient service building within 250 yards of a hospital can charge a subsidy to support a hospital,” he said.
“The financial reduction we experienced in Sequim was a result of the action holding fast to that 250-yard radius. So our prices in Sequim do not subsidize our hospital.
“If you can find a service in Sequim that meets your medical needs, I would hope that our costs are competitive.”
A recording of the forum will be available on YouTube on Saturday. Voter guides will be published before the election by Clallam County and the state Secretary of State’s Office.
Peninsula Daily News will not be publishing a general election voter guide.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].