Council calls for increased medical services in SH

Scott Swanson

City Councilor Greg Mahler laid out his case Tuesday, Jan. 19, for urgent care in Sweet Home during a special meeting of the council to address the question of what to do with Wiley Creek Community.

The council meeting came on the heels of a turbulent week in which Samaritan Health, which owns the retirement community, announced Jan. 12 that it was closing the assisted living portion of the enterprise, sparking outrage and a massive – for Sweet Home – community response.

After two days of angry social media posts, 1,580 signatures gathered in a online petition, and a heated meeting between affected Wiley Creek residents, their relatives and friends, and Samaritan officials on Jan. 14, the organization announced Jan. 15 that it was reversing its decision and Wiley Creek would stay intact.

Mayor Jim Gourley said council members wanted the meeting to discuss last week’s events.

“We’re not very happy about how things went,” he told Marty Cahill, chief executive officer of Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital and Samaritan Corvallis CEO Doug Boysen, who were at the community meetings held Jan. 14 and 16 at Wiley Creek, in which more than 100 people packed the community room in the Main Lodge.

At Tuesday’s meeting a crowd of some 50 local residents, including a couple of Wiley Creek residents, packed the council chambers.

Also present at the meeting were council members Bruce Hobbs, Dave Trask, Ryan Underwood and Marybeth Angulo. Jeff Goodwin was absent.

Gourley and council members asked the crowd to keep input “positive” at the meeting, which lasted about an hour.

“I think we kind of beat this thing to death for two days,” said Council Member Dave Trask. “I don’t know what more we could say, possibly right now. People’s feelings were hurt. We were passionate about what we believed in. You guys took that like troopers.

“I don’t know if we need another big, long session to beat you guys up because I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that,” he added, to laughter from the crowd.

Mahler, who along with Trask, serves is a longtime volunteer with the Sweet Home Fire and Ambulance District, made his case for an urgent care facility in Sweet Home. He said it would make a lot of sense to locate it on the large vacant area next to the Wiley Creek facility.

Mahler noted that medical calls “keep going up,” from 1,895 in 2012 to 2,104 last year. Out of the 2015 total, 594 patients were transported to Samaritan Lebanon Community Hospital, 46 to Good Samaritan in Corvallis and 398 elsewhere, many of those to RiverBend in Springfield, many because the Lebanon hospital is “full” or “cannot take patients, he said.

“To me, I would think that is kind of lost revenue to Samaritan Health,” Mahler said.

He noted that SHFAD covers one of the largest territories in the state, with 6,700 registered homes and a “conservative” estimate of 14,000 residents.

“We are in desperate need because of this,” Mahler said.

He noted that an acute care facility would make it easier for senior residents of Wiley Creek to get medical care and would greatly reduce the wear and tear on SHFAD ambulances, which average 55,000 to 60,000 miles a year.

“That’s far greater than Lebanon or Albany ever dream of putting on their ambulance,” he said, adding that new ambulances cost between $140,000 and $160,000. “When we have no money and this is a small rural fire district, it’s tough.”

The availability of acute care in Sweet Home would also alleviate “stress” on SLCH and would provide needed services that would help attract new industry and growth to the community, Mahler said.

“We have a lot of investors who have looked at Sweet Home but they say we don’t have the infrastructure in place,” he said. “We do have a beautiful community. We have natural resources, things they need. But we do not quite have the infrastructure in place, things they are looking for.”

Gourley added that establishing a new facility at Wiley Creek would also give doctors more incentive to practice in Sweet Home and to stay here.

“A lot of our doctors don’t stay here because the facilities are not adequate,” he said.

Trask and Mahler said an urgent care center should also include a helicopter landing facility.

“You’d be shocked where we land REACH,” Mahler said. “Rocky Top Bridge, Green River Road the middle of Pleasant Valley, the football field – anywhere we can drop that chopper.”

Trask said that, currently, if no one with a key can be found to open the football field, SHFAD personnel have to cut the lock to open the gate for the ambulance.

Other councilors said they agreed with the two about the need for urgent care.

Angulo said she would like to see more physical therapy availability in Sweet Home. Underwood, whose son is a SHFAD volunteer, said he’s been told about “troubling” incidences of diversions from the Lebanon hospital.

“If the Fire and Ambulance District is running to the top of Santiam Pass, what’s another 14 miles? Well, that 14 minutes may be a matter of life and death at that time. I think Samaritan is really missing the boat as far as what the focus is and what the priority is at this point.”

He noted a news account last week about Samaritan investing $6.9 million into its North Albany campus.

“I don’t think it’s a question of money,” Underwood said.

Cahill said he understands the need for urgent care, particularly after six years as CEO at Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital in Lincoln City. He became chief operations officer at SLCH in June 2013 and CEO last month.

“The issues and concerns you’ve brought forward this evening are issues I saw in Lincoln City,” he said, listing urgent care, physical therapy and stroke therapy. “Some of these vital services that could be expanded out here are a concern across our entire system.”

Underwood questioned the Samaritan executives regarding the “influences” behind their decision to close Wiley Creek.

Cahill said it came after a review of properties Samaritan owns or “had access to” and whether the enterprises housed in those facilities were making money.

“All that factored in,” he said. The decision to close Wiley Creek was based on 44 patients in a facility that is operating at a loss versus “15 patients staying 21 days” at a time.

Boysen said Samaritan also considered the fact that there were other senior living facilities, though none in Sweet Home, whereas, he said, there are only two “small, kind of niche (drug and alcohol) facilities in Lincoln, Benton and Linn Counties.

“We view ourselves as a safety net,” he said. “That’s a service that’s required out there, a service that we saw there’s a great need for. It’s needed across all of the counties we serve – it’s not just a Sweet Home problem.”

He said Samaritan has been looking at properties “brought to our attention,” including “lots of things” outside Sweet Home that are “more suited” to that type of use.

“We’re just vetting it all right now.”

Boysen urged the council and residents to “keep an open mind,” noting that cuts in the number of beds in the Lebanon hospital “caused a lot of community uproar” but led eventually to the establishment of an education center “which then led to an education campus with a medical school. We found a niche we were able to feed off of.

“I completely agree with you about the essential services. We keep an open mind because you never know where the math will take you.”

Council members emphasized that they were eager to move forward and that they did not want to be left in the dark regarding any future developments.

Boysen apologized for the city staff and council members having to field dozens of phone calls and emails from angry citizens.

“It was poor communication,” he said. “We could have done that better.”

Several audience members asked commented and asked questions at the end of the meeting.

Kyle Sullens, who attended the Wiley Creek meetings, said he was eager to see improved and “systemic” communication.