The Wallowa County Health Care District board continued to explore the possibility of building a new hospital Monday when it listened to a presentation by the Portland firm of Clark/Kjos which specializes in health care facilities.

"We haven't made a decision yet, and we probably won't have one by May," said board chair Ed Jensen in response to a question about where the board stood on a new hospital. "We're still in the exploration stage."

Architects Art Kjos, in charge of construction and facilities management, and Ed Clark, in charge of planning and design, talked about the advantages of building a new facility, rather than remodeling an old one. They said a new hospital building could be designed around changes in the health care field, such as the increase in ambulatory care. Designing for staff efficiency, flexibility for future needs and energy efficiency; getting a higher value for dollars spent; building community confidence; and becoming more attractive for doctor and staff recruitment and retention were among other advantages cited.

In one of their power point images the architects showed an aerial image of an area near the Wallowa County Fairgrounds, with a site marked which they described as perfect for a hospital: open and flat, with good solar access, good road access, scenic and room for a "campus" and expansion.

Kjos said their policy is to work very closely with a community in designing a hospital, so it reflects the needs and wants of that community. He suggested a timeline that would result in the beginning of construction in the spring of 2004.

A long list of other hospitals designed by the firm include those at Burns, Bandon and Pullman.

When asked about the site after the presentation, Jensen said that the owner of this particular property had not even been approached about potential purchase for a hospital and it should remain "a mystery site" for the present. The question of possible hospital locations was not discussed by the board.

The board continues to emphasize that construction of a new hospital would not be financed with tax dollars. If the decision is made to build a new facility to replace 53-year-old Wallowa Memorial, the plan is to pay for it with a combination of grants, donations, business income and a commercial bank loan, backed by the federal government. Hospital administrator Larry Davy noted that the critical access status of the hospital under Medicare would provide additional payments to the district for investments in new buildings and equipment, and would total about $300,000 annually.

The financial picture for the Wallowa Health Care District continues to look relatively rosy, with the number of patient days up 200 compared to last year at this time, and the net income for the year-to-date $664,742 compared to $314,885 budgeted for the whole year. "That's more than double," noted Mark Bandy, the district's financial consultant, calling the showing "remarkable" considering the financial problems facing many rural hospitals.

On the downside is the fact that the Wallowa Valley Care Center will lose approximately $700,000 this fiscal year, compared to last year's loss of $580,000.

Davy noted that many people still have the perception that the nursing home makes money while the hospital loses money. "That's just not true," he said.

Board chair Jensen said that a discussion of what to do about the nursing home will be on the agenda for next mnth's meeting. "We just can't continue to afford these kind of losses, " he said. Possible solutions he mentioned to be discussed ranged from divorcing the nursing home from the hospital and having a private operator, to cutting the level of services.

After the meeting Davy said, to alleviate public concerns, that there are no plans to close the nursing home. At the same time he notes that a reduction in Medicaid payments and increased expenses has made the facility very expensive to operate, and heavily subsidized by the hospital.

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