CHD Annexation: It’s Not Over Until It’s Over
Debate focuses on CHD annexation proposal
….Curry Coastal Pilot, September 30, 2015 by Jayati Ramakrishnan….
|The Brookings TEA Party on Saturday provided the backdrop for two passionate Curry County residents to debate the merits and drawbacks of a proposal to annex the southern end of the county into the Curry Health District.
Mayor Ron Hedenskog, a supporter of the annexation, and Curry County resident Catherine Wiley, a former health care professional and vocal opponent of the measure, discussed the issue and fielded questions from a packed audience.
The debate over whether to annex the southern end of the county into the Curry Health District has elicited strong reactions from Curry County residents since it was announced in August that the issue will appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Measures 8-83 and 8-84 both deal with the potential annexation of the south end of the county into the Curry Health District.
Measure #8-83 asks residents of the current health district, from just south of Pistol River to the north end of the county, whether they would like to have the southern end of the county annexed into the district. Measure #8-84 asks voters from south of Pistol River to the California border whether they would like to be annexed into the health district.
Hedenskog began with an overview of the city’s decade-long effort to expand health care facilities in Brookings. In 2004, he said, Curry Health Network constructed the 5th Street Urgent Care facility with an emergency room in mind. In 2012, he said, the city began meeting with CHN to discuss a partnership to construct an emergency room at the 5th street clinic.
The city reviewed several options, he said, including a stand-alone emergency room, a split campus and an independent hospital and health district.
While Hedenskog is firmly in support of the annexation, Wiley discussed why she has reservations about the prospect of annexing the south county into the district.
She said that to improve health care facilities in Curry County, citizens need to examine all their options.
“I believe we need increased ER and trauma facilities, and quality, cost effective, comprehensive, accessible health care services.”
She continued that while all these things are important have in Curry County, the proposals made by the city of Brookings and the Curry Health district have been made without any input from the south county.
“This ballot measure provides no assurance,” she said. She listed several alternatives, such as building an independent hospital in the port district, creating a satellite hospital, or that the southern end of the county could form its own health district, elect its own board and set its own tax rate.
She added that according to Oregon law, it is legal for a health district to have a split hospital district.
Hedenskog said that all the alternatives Wiley proposed have already been looked at by the state.
“There is no other alternative,” he said. “The state will not allow a stand-alone hospital. It will jeopardize the economies of the other two hospitals in the area (Curry General and Sutter Coast).”
Hedenskog said the state also discouraged the city from pursuing an independent hospital.
“While Catherine is right that there are state provisions to allow a hospital in Brookings, it wouldn’t be critical access.” He added that getting approval for a stand-alone hospital requires two designations — state and federal. “The state told us they’d most likely deny it,” Hedenskog said.
A long process
Faced with the lack of progress after years of trying to build an ER in Brookings, Hedenskog said the city turned to the state government for some assistance. The verdict was largely the same — Brookings could not operate an independent hospital, critical access hospital, split campus, or a stand-alone ER. From there, Brookings and CHN hired a lobbyist, and began discussing ways to get an emergency room in Brookings.
After meeting with several state legislators, the city determined it would request an administrative rule change from the Oregon Health Authority, which would allow it to build a stand-alone ER.
“The governor said we needed an ER, and to make it happen,” Hedenskog said. “This opened the door just wide enough for Brookings.”
This is the first time the state has allowed a stand-alone ER. Hedenskog added that the rule was still restrictive in allowing stand-alone ERs in other areas, and would be applied on a case-by-case basis, only for rural communities that met the criteria.
In spring 2015, the city was granted a temporary rule change to permit ER construction. The ER has been completed, and is now waiting for final approval from the state health authority.
Wiley said one of her concerns about the proposed annexation is that citizens of the south county would be annexed into the tax base, and now responsible for CHD’s debt, but have not been included in any of the decisions that had led the district to that point. Nor, she said, would the south county citizens have an advocate on the CHD board of directors.
“It’s taxation without representation,” she said.
Hednskog noted that should the measure pass, two ex-officio representatives will immediately be appointed to the Curry Health District board of directors. These people will be able to offer input in health district decisions, but will not have a vote.
“The state law doesn’t allow us to appoint new representatives, or to kick anyone off the board,” Hedenskog said. Currently, all five members of the CHD board are representatives from the northern part of the county.
At the time of the next election (May 2017), three positions will become available, all of which will be available to all residents of Curry County, should the measure pass, he said.
Benefits and drawbacks
Wiley said that while the benefits of annexation are clear for the health district — an increased tax base with which to tackle debt — the benefits are less certain for south county residents.
“This will permanently increase property taxes,” Wiley said. She added that, in the event of a natural disaster, south county residents would not be able to reach Curry General Hospital.
“We’ll be permanently paying for a hospital we won’t be able to reach.”
Hedenskog noted that regardless of the results of the ballot measure, the ER has been constructed. However, he said that a failure to pass the measure would leave Curry County out of options, and might jeopardize the ER’s ability to stay open.
“This community will be very disappointed down the road,” Hedenskog said. “There’s no guarantee the north end of the county will continue to foot the bill for the city. They could shut the door on the ER — they own it.” He added that without the support of the south county, it is possible that the ER won’t make enough money to support itself.
Wiley said that an annexation resolution or ballot measure might be an option in the future — but only after citizens have time to do adequate research on the issue.
“What’s the rush?” she said. “Allow us a chance to review facts and obtain literature.”
Wiley said one of the things that concerns her is the urgency with which the measure has been proposed.
“Only one option has been offered — annexation now. It’s being presented as the only option, and the only opportunity to have that option.”
Hedenskog urged voters to recognize that the health district is not trying to hide things from the public.
“This is not a conspiracy,” he said. “Ask for information, and you’ll be given it.”
Questions and answers
The audience, overflowing with Curry County citizens, CHD board members and city officials, had several questions, many of which centered around common themes: how much debt is the district in, and how will the presence of a new ER in Brookings affect ambulance passengers?
Prior to the existence of an ER in Brookings, patients would have to travel 30 minutes, either to Curry General in Gold Beach or Sutter Coast in Crescent City where they could, if necessary, be flown to another hospital. Once the ER is open, Brookings residents can be taken to the 5th Street facility and flown to another hospital from the Brookings airport.
Curry Health Network CEO Ken Landau said that the district currently has a deficit of $27 million, and with the construction of the new hospital, that number will rise to about $47 million.
Residents in the current health district pay 74 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation to fund the Gold Beach hospital. With the recent approval of a $10 million general obligation bond to replace that hospital, however, once the bond is sold, the tax rate is expected to increase to $1.44 per $1,000. Were annexation approved, however, the burden would be spread to taxpayers throughout the county, with all taxpayers paying about 99 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation.