Time is short for Petaluma hospital decision

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This editorial is from the Petaluma Argus-Courier:

As the clock continues to tick in a hasty process to secure a suitable operator for Petaluma Valley Hospital, we’re heartened to hear that the Petaluma Health Care District Board expects bids from three prospective partners interested in operating the 80-bed acute care facility. But are any of the bidders suitable candidates who can guarantee the continuance of high quality hospital care in Petaluma?

For the last 20 years, St. Joseph Health has capably operated the city’s only acute care facility on a lease from the Petaluma Health Care District, the public entity that owns the hospital. Despite having spent more than a year negotiating the terms of a new lease, the district, under the guidance of its publicly elected board of directors, was unable to reach agreement with St. Joseph to continue managing the hospital. St. Joseph has agreed to stay on until September or until a new operator is on board, which likely won’t be sooner than this summer since Petaluma voters must ratify the new contract at the ballot, and the earliest this can happen is June.

Though the process is being rushed, and with little time to thoroughly evaluate the bidders’ qualifications, the five elected public health officials, along with district CEO Ramona Faith, are engaged in doing the due diligence necessary to ensure that Petaluma does not lose its high quality hospital.

At a time of rapid changes in health care systems nationwide, Petaluma residents should not take for granted that their hospital will always be there for them in the same way it is now. Realistically, there is a good chance that some of the services provided today may not be available in the future.

The district will begin evaluating the proposals this week. After that, they will only have about a month to select the preferred operator and draft language for the June ballot so the public can ratify the choice.

This accelerated timeline is not ideal and could lead to a selection that the public rejects at the polls, leaving uncertainty when the contract with St. Joseph is up in September. St. Joseph has already extended by nine months the 20-year lease that expired in January.

It will not be easy for the district to cram the selection of a new operator into a month and still get a good deal for the public. But that is what needs to happen.

Since the district will need the public’s support to approve a ballot measure, it is imperative that officials are as transparent as possible during this process. The district must provide the public with information about the bids and the bidders and explain to the public in clear language the reasoning for its preferred choice.

This includes reaching out to one of the biggest stakeholder groups — the hospital employees. Since the district will essentially be selecting a new boss for the hundreds of hospital workers, the facility’s nurses, technicians and other employees are understandably nervous about this process.

The district needs to select an operator that maintains emergency services, inpatient services and intensive care, preserves as much of the other existing services as possible and invests in improving quality health care. Neither the employees nor the general public would benefit from an operator that is unwilling to meet these objectives.

Petaluma Valley Hospital is a thriving, profitable operation and the quality of care offered to its patients has, for the most part, been consistently outstanding. It’s a lifeline for many residents in southern Sonoma County. It is essential that health care officials select an operator that will continue this tradition of excellence well into the future.

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