Building a hospital, ER possible in Brookings

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer July 27, 2013 01:06 am

Brookings could soon be home to an emergency room and hospital, due to a loophole found in Oregon law prohibiting two hospitals from being within 30 miles of one another.

Mayor Ron Hedenskog announced the news to county commissioners during their work session Tuesday. It comes after discussions he had with Curry Health Network executive director Andrew Bair, who has been working on health care access concerns of residents in the south end of the county.

“I said years ago we need a hospital in Brookings, and I got chided by the city leaders when I brought this up,” Hedenskog said. “I said I’d never bring it up again. Well, those leaders are gone, so I’m bringing it up again.”

State law says two hospitals cannot operate within a 30-mile radius of each other. But the sentence continues to read, “or 15 miles in mountainous regions.”

Hospital officials believe Curry Health Network just might meet that criteria.

Brookings is halfway — about 25 miles — between Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach to the north and Sutter Coast Hospital in Crescent City to the south.

And if that doesn’t pass muster, health district officials have learned that Curry General Hospital can divide its 24-bed hospital and ER into two campuses under the terms of its state certification.

Hedenskog assured county commissioners that the needs of residents at the northern end of the county would not be abandoned just because Brookings has the largest population base in the county. Also, the proposed $10 million general obligation bond Curry Health Network officials is pursuing will only go toward construction of a new hospital in Gold Beach, he said.

“Andrew Bair said Curry Health Network is ready to (elevate the status of) this facility (Curry Medical Center) to an emergency room and some hospital beds,” Hedenskog said. “He said the state will allow splitting the facility, making two campuses out of it. That’s good news for us.”

Incentives

Monday, the Brookings City Council voted to reduce the percentage rate — from 9 percent to 6 percent — on a loan the health district has with the city when it built the Fifth Street urgent care facility. The health district owes about $500,000 in System Development Charges, fees charged for sewer and water infrastructure to new development.

“Hospitals don’t discharge ordinary household waste,” Hedenskog said, adding that SDC numbers are calculated using national standards. “We don’t just pluck these numbers out of the air.”

The original percentage rate was so high because city officials try to discourage developers from borrowing from the city, and instead urge them to pursue loans from the private sector, which offers lower borrowing rates.

Former CEO Bill McMillan asked the Brookings City Council years ago for a break in those interest rates and was flatly denied. 

The decreased loan rate, Hedenskog said, is a “goodwill gesture,” and hopefully will encourage hospital officials to continue with their plans for Brookings.

Another incentive city councilors might consider is using Urban Renewal Agency funds to pay for future SCDs if hospital officials pursue the idea by, say, obtaining a building permit for an emergency room.

Additionally, the city could work with the county to extend the Brookings Airport runway to accommodate Medivac planes. New commercial development there could not only help out the health district’s bottom line, but help pay for the runway extension.

“The city and county need to come to an agreement about the management of the airport,” Hedenskog said later this week. “We need to secure a cooperative agreement to make improvements to the airport.”

Commissioner David Itzen said Cal-Ore Life Flight owner Dan Brattain can fly his medical airplane out of Brookings Airport 66 percent of the time. But a longer runway – Brookings’ is 2,880 feet long and needs to be at least 3,000 feet long — could accommodate larger planes in adverse weather.

That improved situation would also make the county — the airport’s owner — eligible for Federal Aviation Administration grants for further improvements.

Patients aren’t flying anywhere, however, without either a hospital or emergency room, as they can only be transported to a larger medical facility after a doctor ensures they are stable enough to fly and then releases them to the care of the aircraft’s medical personnel.

Controversy

The idea doesn’t come without a few complications, however.

“What about (Brookings) being in the (health) district,” Commissioner Susan Brown queried.

“We have not been invited,” Hedenskog replied. “It probably wouldn’t happen without an invitation – and it probably wouldn’t happen without controversy.”

Brookings is not in the Curry Health Network district, which extends from the north end of the county to just south of Pistol River. Brookings was never included.

“Gold Beach was a big city back then,” Hedenskog said. “Brookings was a one-dog town. And Harbor didn’t even exist.”

Animosities still simmer, he added.

“There were probably some reasons why Curry Health Network doesn’t want us in, and there are probably some reasons why the south end wouldn’t want to be in,” Hedenskog said.

Commissioner David Brock Smith pointed out that north county residents sometimes resent that Brookings residents don’t pay taxes toward the district, yet benefit from having the clinic in town.

Hedenskog said that Brookings’ leaders have no intention of “taking away” health facility access from Gold Beach area, and any contract negotiated to build an ER and hospital campus in Brookings would reflect that.

As it is, Curry Health Network receives the bulk of its revenue from Brookings residents – and a good portion of those also travel to Crescent City for health care. A hospital in town could give the district and city an added economic boost.

Hedenskog joked that he is encouraged, however, because he asked his wife if she’d be willing to pay, say 35 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation to be included in the health district and she replied in the affirmative.

“There’s my sounding board right there,” he said.

Actual tax costs are currently 74 cents per $1,000 valuation, but it’s possible that with a larger population in the pool, that rate could be decreased.

The timing couldn’t be better, either, Itzen noted.

Sutter Coast Hospital is in the midst of contentious reorganization plans and could end up reducing its scope to comprise 24 hospital beds and limited emergency room hours as a critical care facility — a designation usually reserved for smaller hospitals in rural areas. That hospital is required to maintain six hospital beds for Pelican Bay Prison inmates and two for obstetrics.

Doctors and hospital officials are aggressively fighting the reorganization and redesignation.

“That’s a tremendous decrease for that area,” Hedenskog said. “If you’re in Brookings or Harbor and in dire need of a hospital at 2, 3 in the morning, good luck. It’s 30 miles to the north, 30 miles to the south. There’s nothing in Brookings.”

Hedenskog hopes to hold a medical “summit” involving all involved, including officials from the cities, county, health district and Cal-Ore Life Flight in upcoming months.