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County’s health officials share concerns

All aspects of local health care system under scrutiny

— Dozens of area health care professionals gathered Wednesday for the first hospital committee meeting, but not much was decided except to keep the committee going and focus on preserving services.

The commission is examining all aspects of the hospital districts’ operations, including the possibility of consolidating.

“There are still a lot of generalities right now, but the consensus was they still want to go forward,” Okanogan County Commission-er Jim DeTro said. “We want to have everyone on the same page and working for the common goal.”

During the meeting, Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy noted the committee has several priorities it needs to address in the future, none of which will be resolved overnight.

Much of the first meeting was spent discussing how the area hospitals – Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak, North Valley Hospital in Tonasket and Three Rivers Hospital in Brewster – aren’t equipped with the appropriate facilities and trained staff to handle psychiatric patients brought into emergency rooms.

The problem, according to mental health care professional Tenzin Denison, is many psychiatric facilities don’t have enough beds, so a patient has to wait in the hospital until one opens up. Sometimes, if a patient is suspected of committing a crime they can be detained at the hospital for 72 hours.

“This I think creates incredible stress on the hospital, on the nursing staff,” Denison said, noting that on rare occasions patients can be aggressive.

One possibility could be to create specialized rooms within each hospital. Denison said North Valley has an object-free room with a camera, but it was pointed out the camera doesn’t have audio capabilities and an employee must constantly monitor the camera if someone’s in the room.

North Valley CEO Linda Michel said figuring out how to handle mental health patients is “a huge problem,” especially keeping in mind everyone’s safety.

“More and more we are on lockdown. Nearly every

weekend, we’re on lockdown,” she said.

J. Scott Graham, soon to be Three Rivers’ new CEO, said it seems like a policy issue that needs to be addressed on the legislative level, but the hospital would be willing to look at options if funding is available.

“Often, hospitals aren’t reimbursed for that care,” he said, noting mental health funding was “gutted” about 15 years ago. “Most staff aren’t trained to deal with psychiatric patients.”

Commissioner Ray Campbell referred to Gov. Jay Inslee’s initiative earlier this year to combine mental health and chemical dependency services, which created a bipartisan task force including legislators, state and local agencies and county officials to develop recommendations on health care purchasing issues.

Campbell said the task force is supposed to have recommendations ready by next year to implement in 2016.

“We need a place to be able to, in each of our regions… house people here,” he said.

Abby Murphy with the Washington Association of Counties said the state ranks near the bottom of the list nationwide for the number of beds for patients with severe mental illness.

“The hope is to have a system where these two systems are blended to help more people,” she said.

Mid-Valley CEO Michael Billing said there could be regulations coming down the pike that allow insurance companies to provide different levels of coverage based on how far away residents live from a health facility – for instance, someone living within a 30-mile radius could get better coverage than someone living 60 miles away.

“Of course, we’ve been raising a lot of Cain about that,” he said.

“We do have funding obligations to rural communities,” 7th District Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said. “When they lose access to care, they don’t get it back.”

As for consolidating the three hospital districts into one, DeTro said that has been a major topic of discussion but it won’t be the committee’s primary focus.

“The plan is not to basically make a triage out of two hospitals and have one hospital in a brand-new facility in Omak,” he said Thursday, referencing draft blueprints that had been commissioned at one time by resident Bob Tollefson to construct a new regional health care facility on his property north of the city. “We want our rural hospitals to survive because we can see them going away all over the state… At this point, everyone is just trying to keep together what we have.”

“I think that this committee is something that should continue on,” Family Health Centers CEO Mike Hassing said Wednesday. “There are a lot of complexities, but a lot of opportunities. We can either choose to shape some of those opportunities, or have those opportunities shaped for us.”

“I certainly think that there’s a lot of things we can do together… to cut spending and to improve services,” Michel said. “I do feel the three facilities we have are needed facilities because of the coverage areas that we have.”

Some ideas broached during the meeting include issuing surveys to residents in order to better assess their needs, sharing equipment between facilities to cut costs and educating residents, such as making sure they know they can get their lab tests done locally rather than traveling hours away to a larger hospital.

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