For perhaps the fifth or sixth time since 1998, voters and property owners of north Sonoma County are being asked to keep their hospital in Healdsburg open and providing critical access and emergency room care. This time, the measure in question on the Nov. 3 ballot seeks approval of a purchase agreement for the hospital with NorCal HealthConnect, LLC, a secular affiliate of Providence St. Joseph Health that owns Santa Rosa’s Memorial Hospital.
Passage of Measure BB on the Nov. 3 ballot would require NorCal HealthConnect to keep the hospital open another 30 years and pay $15 million for the property and facilities. All current healthcare services and mainline employees would be retained under the agreement and a new form of governance allowing for at-large community members would be instituted.
There is no formal opposition statement on the ballot, but several local residents have raised concerns about protecting women’s health and reproductive services under the regime of a faith-based, Catholic parent corporation.
With or without approval of Measure BB, the current $150 parcel tax will remain in place so that past debts by the district can continue to be paid. Pass or fail, a portion of the parcel tax funds will continue to support the hospital’s operation.
The elected board of the North Sonoma County Healthcare District has been searching for a strategic partner or new owners for several years as fiscal challenges kept mounting at the small, semi-rural hospital with community roots that go all the way back to 1905. The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated the decades of nagging fiscal woes with recent monthly losses rising to six figures. District leaders have said they face $20-$50 million in needed facility and seismic upgrades, plus additional operating subsidies. Board chair Erin Gore has said more than once that “we (the district) quickly realized we don’t have the capacity to raise those amounts o funds.”
After being operated under private ownership by various owners for almost a century, it was announced in 1998 by then-owners Columbia/HCA that the hospital doors were being permanently shut due to large financial losses. A small contingent of community leaders and physicians cobbled together a proposal and a down payment of $500,000 to save the hospital. But that wasn’t enough.
In 2002, north county voters were asked to form a public healthcare district, funded by an $85 annual parcel tax to take over the ailing hospital. That still wasn’t enough and voters were asked in 2004 — and overwhelmingly approved — to increase the annual parcel tax to $150. Since then, there have been two more rounds of voter-approved bonds and public funding. At the same time, the nonprofit Healthcare Foundation of Northern Sonoma County also raised millions of dollars for improvements and programs at the hospital and elsewhere in the north county district.
All this was taking place while a national healthcare crisis played out where hundreds of small and rural communities were losing their hospitals, patient costs were soaring, access to care was falling and Congress was in gridlock. The passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2010 addressed some of the crisis, but there was very little help offered for community hospitals.
All of Sonoma County’s smaller hospitals shared Healdsburg’s struggles as they attempted to join forces with shared services and supply purchase agreements. Again, not much help was derived. Sebastopol’s Palm Drive Hospital no longer exists and voters in west county disbanded their public healthcare district earlier this year. Petaluma Valley Hospital is also seeking voter approval on Nov. 3 to sell their hospital to the same entity seeking acquisition of Healdsburg District Hospital.
“The district board believes that this purchase will provide the best assurance that the residents of the district will receive continued, long-term access to acute care hospital services, including the 24/7 emergency room. A larger network can bring additional value into our district by expanding access to comprehensive services and implementing Community Benefit initiatives and programs to address our community’s needs,” said NSCHD Board Chair Erin Gore in a prepared statement.
The district held a series of virtual voter information sessions from Aug. 17-19 that were lightly attended. Measure BB was recently endorsed by the Healdsburg City Council. It also has been endorsed by Esther Lemus, vice mayor of the town of Windsor; Laura Kimbro, Windsor physician; Dr. Jed Weisberg, retired physician’ and Dr. Richard Andolsen, who all have signed supporting ballot arguments.
Measure BB includes specific language of what medical service it is required to provide. “Purchaser shall continue providing the health care services currently furnished at HDH or services comparable to such services as changes in technology and medical science may provide. Additionally, consistent with past practices, HDH will not provide elective abortions, physician assisted suicide, or the destruction of human embryos (“Restricted Services”). Requests for Restricted Services will be accommodated externally.”
NorCal HealthConnect LLC is responsible for all seismic upgrades of the 50-year-old hospital. It is possible the buyer will build a new hospital instead of completing the expensive (at least $20 million) retrofitting.
Healdsburg District Hospital serves all north county communities including Cloverdale, Geyserville, Healdsburg and Windsor. It operates 10 clinics and satellite facilities including a primary physicians group, behavioral health, occupational heath, wound care, women’s heath and a strike institute. The Wetzell Emergency Department provides 24/7/365 emergency care.