PORT ANGELES — A candidate for Olympic Medical Center hospital commissioner accused her opponent of having a conflict of interest by heading a long-term care facility that receives OMC patients.
Former Port Angeles City Council member Karen Rogers and Heather Jeffers, Avamere Olympic Rehabilitation of Sequim administrator, debated that issue Tuesday and discussed medical-procedure cost transparency and other topics at a Nov. 2 general election forum.
With four weeks to go until Oct. 13, when ballots are mailed to voters, Jeffers and Rogers appeared at the Port Angeles Business Association weekly election question-and-answer session via Zoom.
Rogers, a Port Angeles business consultant and former mayor, began her opening statement by describing herself as “a community patient advocate,” and finished by sharply criticizing Jeffers.
“I have no conflict of interest to serve you, I have no business relationship with OMC, I am not a health care provider from OMC, and I will not benefit from this position, unlike my opponent,” Rogers said.
“I have no business relationship with OMC, period,” she said.
“I have no intention of running for some other office. This isn’t a ladder-climbing exhibition, and this does not benefit my company in any manner whatsoever.
“OMC should not be mired in conflict of interest by a commissioner.”
In a later interview Tuesday, Rogers called Jeffers’ affiliation a “significant conflict of interest,” saying Avamere benefits from patients who go to the facility from Olympic Medical Center.
“It’s a competitive business, and we are talking about a significant amount of money,” she said.
“She would have to recuse herself on all issues related to long-term care, patient discharge, social worker aspects and even hospice issues.”
Jeffers said in an interview that the Olympic Medical Center Foundation, which Rogers is on, allows business sponsorships for fundraisers that have limited Avamere’s ability to sponsor at high levels.
“We support the foundation, and I have tried to whenever funds allow,” she said.
Rogers said in the interview if she is elected, she would like to be an ex-officio member, adding that OMC does not have decision-making authority on foundation business.
Jeffers ran unsuccessfully for hospital commissioner in 2013 and was appointed to the Sequim School Board in 2015 before losing in the 2016 election.
She was the clear winner in the Aug. 3 primary for the hospital commission post, gaining 56.8 percent of the vote to Rogers’ 31.3 percent and Steve Blackham’s 11.7 percent.
Jeffers said she would be like any other board member who recuses themselves from any votes that involved a business they are associated with.
She has never been involved in any discussion with the board where a partnership with OMC has come up, she said.
In a later interview, she said she would recuse herself from any votes on long-term care as they relate to specific facilities, remaining effective as a board member by offering her 20 years of expertise during board discussions on long-term care challenges and regulations.
“The hospital board and the administrators of the hospital have zero to do with where referrals go,” Jeffers said.
She said she was given the go-ahead to run for the position by the facility’s owner, Avamere Family of Companies Inc., which has said being a hospital commissioner would not present a conflict of interest.
“I give priority to OMC,” she said of providing bed space to hospital patients.
“That’s the hospital we serve.
“Me being on the board does not change what happens in my facility. I don’t gain anything from it, and my facility does not gain anything from it.”
At the forum, Rogers touted her eight years on the city council, said she has been attending commissioner meetings regularly and is on the Olympic Medical Center Foundation board of directors.
She said the board needs someone not closely tied to the hospital or medical community and that she is capable of devoting the minimum of 20 hours a week she said was necessary to serve as a commissioner.
Board President John Nutter said Tuesday it takes a seasoned commissioner about 10 to 15 hours a week on average to adequately serve but that new commissioners need more than that to become familiar with hospital district operations.
Jeffers said she has been to a few board meetings but has not been to one in a long time.
“Up till now, it’s not been my responsibility to be in those board meetings, but in my business and my interest in health care, I do pay attention and review the minutes and look to see what’s going on.
“I take my jobs and responsibilities extremely serious, and I’m committed, and that’s why I’ve been at my work. I don’t just leave in the middle of the day if I’m not required to be there.”
Jeffers said she would adjust her work schedule, if elected, and that Avamere’s hiring of an assistant administrator will make that more possible.
The candidates were asked how they make costs more transparent for patients so they could more easily know the cost of procedures.
“I need to know what the current policies are on the other end,” Jeffers said.
“I would see what they are, see if they are being followed,” she said.
“Based on my knowledge and experience in my business, rules about billing and billing practices and how we present information are so strict, I would look and see if there’s anything they are not doing that I think could be done to improve that.”
The public could be better educated about billing practices, she said.
“Patients are getting surprised with a bill, or thought they were all done,” Jeffers said. “I think there’s a lot that can be done with managing people’s expectations from the beginning.”
Rogers said while it’s always easier “to critique from the county than to be in that position,” OMC patients should be able to be apprised earlier on costs of procedures.
“I don’t think you should go in there for a test and realize that part of that test is going to be billed by a third party, and you don’t know that until the day that you’re there for the test,” she said.
“I think we need to work on that one. It seems to me you shouldn’t be able to book the appointment until all the verification is in place.”
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].