Serving Franklin County, WA

Hospital merger bill threatens rural access

Guest Column

As a senator representing rural Washington, I understand the importance of accessible healthcare for all residents, regardless of where they live.

Unfortunately, for far too long, rural communities in Washington have struggled to access the care they need. The challenges they face include a shortage of medical professionals, inadequate infrastructure, and limited resources. Residents often have to travel for hours to reach the nearest hospital or clinic, and even then may not receive the care needed due to a lack of specialized services.

Take the story of Yakima resident Steve Sturgeon, which offers a tragic example of the consequences of living in a healthcare desert.

When he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, there were no ALS specialists locally. The cost of traveling four hours each way to Seattle for specialized care proved to be too much of a burden. Unable to overcome the significant barriers to accessing the necessary care, his condition worsened, and he ultimately lost his life.

Steve Sturgeon's story highlights the urgent need for policies that address healthcare disparities and improve access to care for all Americans. That's why I cannot support Senate Bill 5241. This bill, if passed, would have disastrous consequences for the healthcare system in our state, particularly for those who reside in remote and underserved regions like those I represent in central Washington.

One of my biggest concerns with this bill is that it would effectively ban hospital mergers that cannot meet its vague requirements. While proponents argue mergers may reduce certain types of services and raise costs for patients, we must also recognize that sometimes mergers are the only way to save struggling hospitals from closing, particularly in rural communities.

In my district, we have seen firsthand how these mergers have saved regional hospitals, allowing local communities to continue to access critical healthcare services.

In 2020, Astria Health declared bankruptcy and closed its hospitals. That left Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital as the region's only major hospital, but it too faced financial difficulties and was at risk of shutting down.

To prevent the closure of Yakima Valley Memorial, a merger was proposed with MultiCare Health System, based in Tacoma. The proposal was approved by the state Department of Health and the Yakima County Board of Commissioners. Under the terms of the merger, MultiCare would take over management of Yakima Valley Memorial and invest in its infrastructure and technology. MultiCare also pledged to maintain and expand services.

It's important to recognize that when hospitals are not financially viable, they must either partner with other institutions or face closure. Unfortunately, in many cases, SB 5241 would leave hospital closures as the only option. This would have devastating consequences for communities, particularly those in rural areas.

Senate Bill 5241 also would create an onerous government-oversight provision. Hospitals that successfully merged would be required to pay the costs of having the attorney general's office "monitor" adherence to this provision over a 10-year period. That would undoubtedly prove cost-prohibitive for smaller institutions.

While it is true that Washington's healthcare system needs to be more accessible, more affordable, and more equitable, while providing high-quality services, Senate Bill 5241 would accomplish none of that. Instead, it would make it difficult for hospitals to establish the much-needed partnerships that could become critical to their survival.

The people of rural Washington deserve access to high-quality healthcare, regardless of where they live. Effectively banning hospital mergers would only serve to further marginalize these communities. I hope my colleagues will recognize this reality and reject Senate Bill 5241.

- Sen. Nikki Torres, R-Pasco, represents the 15th Legislative District.

 

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