The Curry Coastal Pilot

CRESCENT CITY andndash; Jackie Wellman stood in front of Sutter Coast Hospital on Wednesday afternoon, picket sign in hand.

About 70 other people lined the sidewalk along Washington Boulevard - most were seniors and some, like Wellman, were protesting for the first time in their lives.

Two decades ago, she and her husband decided to retire in Crescent City over neighboring Brookings because the hospital is here, she said, describing the care they've since received at Sutter Coast as "wonderful."

But now she's worried that a decision made in a closed boardroom will have far-reaching impacts on the kind of health care services available to everyone in Del Norte and Curry counties.

"Regionalization" would shift oversight of the hospital from a Crescent City-based board of directors, (mostly made up of prominent local citizens appointed by Sutter Health), to a regional board in the Bay area, (a panel of 32 far-flung Sutter Health appointees, also charged with running five other hospitals and two medical foundations).

One long-standing local doctor on the hospital's local board voted in favor of the plan, calling it a "merger that may save the hospital," in an interview with the Triplicate.

A group of long-standing local doctors have called the same plan a takeover that may jeopardize the hospital and lead to a significant downsizing of the medical services and staff.

Their dissent began with a question of representation on the regional board, but has of late evolved into outright opposition, backed by the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, the county's Health Care District and increasingly more members of the public.

Opposed doctors have spoken out in print advertisements, on the radio, at public meetings and now on the street.

All in crisp white lab coats, doctors Greg Duncan, Kevin Caldwell and Mark Davis mingled with the crowd of protestors Thursday.

"These are doctors, established citizens, not known to be rabble-rousers. I thought, "If they are concerned I should be concerned," said Eileen Mitchell, a retired nurse.

Who to trust came up time and again in conversations with protestors, many citing the multi-million-dollar salaries of Sutter Health executives, who are running a tax-exempt "non-profit public benefit corporation," as reason enough to be suspicious of any attempt to diminish local oversight, whatever the outcome may be.

"It doesn't make sense to me no matter how I look at it," Gordon Bigham said of the regionalization plan and its possible outcomes. He was the director of business services at Sutter Coast Hospital for 17 years and now he's the controller at Mad River Hospital in Arcata.

He wasn't hanging around his former work place for old times' sake.

"I think it boils down to local control. The voice. They promised us a voice 28 years ago. And now they want to take it away," he said.

"Regionalization is basically a nice word for takeover," Linda Langlois said as a passing driver laid on the horn and flashed her a thumbs up.