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Hospital is joining Franciscan

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By Kevin Hanson-The Courier-Herald

The face of Enumclaw healthcare was forever changed Wednesday night, when an auditorium full of hospital stakeholders voted to hitch their wagon to Franciscan Health System.

With the marriage of healthy Enumclaw Regional Hospital to wealthy Franciscan, something was given and something was gained.

Gone will be the outright independence of a community hospital that has served the needs of Plateau patients since 1949. The entire hospital operation, including millions of dollars in the bank and its physical assets, will be absorbed into the expanding Franciscan system.

The trade-off is the promise of a new, larger, state-of-the-art hospital that will spring to life just steps from the existing facility. If all goes as boosters hope, the new facility - just north of the current hospital across Battersby Avenue - will be up and running in three or four years.

Wednesday's meeting of the Enumclaw Regional Hospital Association was the culmination of a process that began years ago with the realization that Enumclaw's hospital wouldn't be able to meet the ever-changing needs of the healthcare industry.

That prompted the hospital and its active, independent foundation to initially plan for significant expansion. That evolved into an idea to completely replace the aging hospital with a new building and early discussions focused on ways to fund the project locally.

“Over the past decade, we considered several options in order to obtain a new hospital for our community and to augment local patient care services,” said Sue Reiter, president of the hospital's board of directors. “This included discussions with several local hospitals and health systems. We also explored the formation of a public hospital district.”

Discussions took a significant turn in early 2006 when Franciscan Health System inquired about the operations joining forces. Those on the Enumclaw end shied away at that time, but a window remained open for future discussions.

Along the way, local plans stalled because skyrocketing costs had proved more than the local organization could handle.

Steve Moergeli, a member of the hospital's board of directors, outlined the entire process for Wednesday's audience.

“Our task was to find a way to build a new hospital,” he said. And, after crunching numbers, “affiliation was the only thing we could look at.”

Given that, the committee began looking for a partner that “would match the community and its culture” and Franciscan was the answer, Moergeli said.

Franciscan remained a willing partner, but negations proved tricky. Moergeli said talks between the two sides spanned five months and involved 10 revisions of a working agreement.

Moergeli covered some of the major points in the final document during Wednesday's presentation:

€ First and foremost, Franciscan Health System has agreed to build a new hospital of 90,000 square feet, about double the size of the current facility. Equipment is to be modernized and services expanded, and construction is to be completed three years after necessary permits are secured. It is figured the cost will be in the $40 million range.

€ Protections were built in to ease the fears of current hospital employees, who have worried that affiliation with a large healthcare provider would mean the end of their jobs.

€ The hospital will maintain its autonomy through continuation of its 13-member board of directors. A new wrinkle will be the addition of two Franciscan representatives to the board. Having a local board with decision-making power will make the Enumclaw hospital unique among those in the Franciscan system.

€ An independent “enforcement organization,” chaired by Moergeli and consisting of four other members of the community, will have free reign to enforce all terms of the agreement. An important clause is that the group will have the financial backing to make itself a force to be reckoned with. The group will exist until one year after completion of the hospital.

In response to audience questions, representatives from the local hospital and Franciscan noted the following: once a new hospital is built, the current facility will be razed and replaced with a parking lot; there will be no property tax implications stemming from affiliation with Franciscan; benefits for employees will likely be more desirable; if Franciscan should want to rid itself of the Enumclaw facility, it has to offer the hospital back to the community at no cost; and, finally, no abortions will be performed at the hospital.

The evening was not without voices of dissent. Ron Jorgensen, who had made his feelings known through letters to the editor and an advertisement in The Courier-Herald, stated his belief that the Enumclaw community has both the financial and creative resources to figure a solution on its own. Earlier, an audience member warned that independence, once relinquished, cannot be regained.

About an hour after the meeting began, a clear, plastic box containing 135 paper ballots was carted to the front of the auditorium. It didn't take long to count and the verdict was quickly announced - there were 109 votes in support of affiliation with Franciscan, an 80.7 percent show of support.

That was more than enough as, according to hospital bylaws, the proposition needed two-thirds support to pass.

Also required was a vote of support from the Franciscan Health System board of directors. That hurdled had been cleared March 1.

Prior to going to a vote of the full membership, the proposal had received a unanimous vote of support from the hospital's board of directors.

Dennis Popp, executive director at Enumclaw Regional Hospital, said one final hurdle remains before the two sides can sign final paperwork. The state attorney general's office reviews such unions to assure everything is above board; for example, to be certain there's no effort to create a monopoly situation. That process, Popp said, could take from 30 to 60 days.

Franciscan Health System operates the Enumclaw Medical Center, St. Joseph's Medical Center in Tacoma, St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way and St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood, and is in the process of building St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor. It is owned and operated by Denver-based Catholic Health Initiatives, one of the largest faith-based health organizations in the United States.

Kevin Hanson can be reached at khanson@courierherald.com.

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