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PD Editorial: A life-saving plan for Healdsburg, Petaluma hospitals

Measure CC would authorize the sale of Petaluma Valley Hospital to a subsidiary of Providence St. Joseph, the operator of Santa Roa Memorial Hopsital. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)
Measure CC would authorize the sale of Petaluma Valley Hospital to a subsidiary of Providence St. Joseph, the operator of Santa Roa Memorial Hopsital. (CHRISTOPHER CHUNG / The Press Democrat)

Hospitals across the country have been closing at an alarming rate.

In November, voters in Petaluma and Healdsburg have an opportunity to ensure that their local hospitals remain open, with 24-hour emergency care, for two decades or more.

That level of health security is increasingly rare in rural America and even in affluent suburban communities.

There is a price for the guarantee. But rather than a tax or fee, it’s loss of public ownership of two local hospitals.

Measure BB would authorize the North Sonoma County Healthcare District to sell Healdsburg District Hospital to a subsidiary of Providence St. Joseph, the health care foundation that owns Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and Queen of the Valley Hospital in Napa.

Measure CC would approve the sale of Petaluma Valley Hospital to the same organization.

Selling valuable public assets is, pardon the pun, a tough pill to swallow.

But these hospitals aren’t exempt from the hardships that contributed to 120 small hospitals around the country closing over the past decade: insufficient capital to upgrade facilities and equipment in a rapidly evolving health care landscape, and an inability to compete with large-scale providers offering regional networks of physicians, specialists, clinics and hospitals.

For a local example, look no further than Sebastopol, where Palm Drive Hospital was closed last year and sold to a long-term care operator after struggling through two bankruptcies.

Petaluma Valley Hospital has been leased by St. Joseph since 1997. After renewal talks collapsed, in part because of the Catholic health foundation’s unwillingness to provide some women’s reproductive services, the Petaluma Health Care District tried and failed to find a new partner.

NorCal Health Connect, a secular subsidiary of Providence St. Joseph, offered to buy the hospital for $52.6 million and preserve existing services at the 80-bed hospital for at least 20 years. The lone exception is the family birthing center, which has a five-year guarantee.

Proceeds from the sale would support mental health, senior care and other south county services funded by the Petaluma health district.

Measure BB would authorize the sale of Healdsburg District Hospital to NorCal Health Connect. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)
Measure BB would authorize the sale of Healdsburg District Hospital to NorCal Health Connect. (ALVIN JORNADA / The Press Democrat)

NorCal Connect would pay at least $15 million over 10 years, including $10 million in capital upgrades, for the 43-bed Healdsburg District Hospital, according to a term sheet outlining the sales agreement. Existing services, including the emergency department, would remain for 30 years — 20 years if the hospital loses its federal critical access designation, which carries a higher reimbursement rate for Medicare.

Without the sale, North Sonoma County Healthcare District officials say the hospital’s survival would be in question. Operating losses through June are projected to be $1 million, and the hospital has $60 million-$110 million in capital obligations, including seismic safety upgrades, over the next 10 years.

Residents of the district would continue to pay a $150-a-year parcel tax to support the hospital after a sale.

The economics of hospital care, for better or worse, revolve around comprehensive services and controlling costs through economies of scale.

Healdsburg has had a public hospital since 1905, and Petaluma since 1946. By affiliating with the operators of Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, north and south county residents will keep their local hospitals open and gain access to larger networks. Moreover, additional services might be offered in Petaluma and Healdsburg.

But if these hospitals close, residents will have to travel to Santa Rosa or elsewhere for hospital care, including emergency services — when every second matters. The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote on Measure BB and Measure CC.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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