South Coast Healthcare Alliance member Sue Gold believes there is a way to get a hospital and emergency room established in Brookings and is working with Curry Health Network and state officials to accomplish that, she told the Brookings City Council Monday evening.

Gold, also a Curry County commissioner, outlined the history of the attempts to get an emergency room and hospital in Brookings — the only city of its size in Oregon without one, and how her group believes it can be done.

Among the arguments presented in favor of such a proposal about four years ago was that some $65 million in health care expenses incurred by South County residents are spent in California. Gold noted that 53 percent of patient care revenue comes from citizens in the 97415 Zip code area, as well, and that the bulk of the population in the county lives in Brookings-Harbor.

“Are you aware how much money goes outside the county for medical services?” Gold said. “It’s about $70 million. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some money stay here?”

A hospital, too, could have many unforeseen benefits, Gold said.

“We’ve got economic problems, of course, but people move to a place because they’ve got good schools and good health care,” Gold said. “A lot of people are moving out of the area because of poor health care. If we had it, more industries would be more inclined to move here as a result. A lot of times these are people who could add a lot to our economic stability in the area. I think it could be really a boon.”

Maggie Runyan of Harbor faces that problem right now, she told the council. A recent medical diagnosis has required her to travel often to Gold Beach for tests — and with the torrential rainfall taking out part of U.S. 101 halfway between Gold Beach and Brookings, she’s not sure how she’s going to do it.

Her son, too, has urged her to relocate due to her health needs and the lack of health care here, she said.

“Would it be possible for South Curry residents to receive better care with less risk and lower costs, or at least equitable to (those in) Gold Beach?” Gold said. “Would Brookings have more economic growth as a result of a hospital and ER located in the city? Would more residents stay in Brookings, rather than moving? I know for a fact some individuals won’t move to an area where there’s not adequate health care. I know all of you know people who move from the area just because their health needs are not met.”

How to get there

Curry General Hospital in Gold Beach and Sutter Coast Hospital in Crescent City, California, are federally-designated critical access hospitals, which entitles them to Medicaid and Medicare funds to provide healthcare in rural areas.

With that, however, comes a rule that prohibits critical access hospitals from being within 35 miles of one another, to prevent one from financially undermining the other.

State Rep. David Brock Smith, while working as a Curry County commissioner, worked with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to change a state administrative rule that would allow the hospital in Gold Beach to “split” its license and to add an emergency room to its facility on Fifth Street in Brookings.

“I would like both,” Gold said. “CMS (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) frowns on standalones — there’s more cost and there could be more risk to the patient. And we’ve found out it’s possible to have a hospital as long as it’s a satellite.”

A satellite hospital would entail having Curry General’s hospital license split to share beds with a facility in Brookings. Under Oregon law, Gold said, having an “acute care” facility in Brookings removes the 35-mile restriction required of “critical access” facilities.

But hopes were crushed when voters in South County rejected a ballot question asking to annex into the the health network’s district — it encompasses most of the land north of Pistol River.

“People didn’t realize a hospital was possible,” Gold said. “If they’d known they, they would’ve fought for a hospital. Folks that worked on this didn’t realize we could have had more (than an emergency room). Why settle for less when we could have more? I think it’s possible to have this happen.”

Part of the reason many voted against it was because they felt they would be taking on the debt the hospital district in Gold Beach was about to take on to build its new $30 million facility.

The alliance proposes using the district boundaries of either the Port of Brookings Harbor or the Chetco Community Public Library — they are the same — instead of creating a separate taxing district, Gold said.

And she believes the people of South County should pay for the facility, likely through a bond. The money for a construction bond for construction could be funneled through the port or library district to avoid creating another special taxing district.

“People in this area should pay for it,” she said. “I’d step up to the plate, and I’m a fiscal conservative.”

The big question

The last time a study was conducted to determine the feasibility of having a hospital in Brookings was in 2004, Gold said. Smith said he would work to find funds for a new preliminary study, which she estimates to be about $10,000 to $15,000.

That study would determine how a satellite hospital and emergency room would affect the Fifth Street Clinic and hospitals in Gold Beach and Crescent City and determine if it is financially feasible to build such a facility. Gold said she’d like, if possible, for the city to contribute some to such a study, as well.

“The city of Brookings spent $50,000 (for a study) to annex Harbor,” noted Catherine Wiley, the chair of the alliance. “Another $100,000 on attorneys and lobbyists to change the administrative rule. You are really the representatives of two-thirds of the county. And we need something here for the majority of the citizens.”

Curry Health Network CEO Gini Razo noted that many legislative hurdles would have to be jumped, and that the health care landscape in Curry County has changed since the last feasibility study was conducted 15 years ago.

“There are three questions,” she said. “Is there demand, is it financially feasible and how would it impact Curry Health Network and Sutter Coast? If it’s adversarial, that has to be taken into serious consideration. It’s not something that will happen overnight. There’s a lot of other questions out there.”

After a study is conducted, Gold suggested, an advisory question should be put to the voters asking them if they want a hospital in town. An advisory question is non-binding and merely asks voters their opinion on an issue. The county last week reinstated its ordinance that allows it to place such questions on ballots.

“We’d like to see if people in South County would support it,” Gold said. “If not, we’re wasting our time.”

The 2004 study indicated a hospital with eight to 10 beds in Brookings would have to be about $34,000 square feet; the facility on Fifth Street is 34,500 square feet.

“If people knew that money was going directly for that hospital building, I think they’d be OK with that,” Gold said. “I would support that. And I’m pretty picky about how I want my tax dollars spent. We can have more. Why settle for less when we can have more?”