Day of reckoning approaching for state's second oldest hospitalNo doubt the Wallowa County Health Care District Board of Directors raised a few eyebrows in the community last week when it entered into a public discussion about the possible construction of a new $10 million hospital.

"How can we build a new hospital when we can't even afford to operate our schools?"

That statement, and statements like it, echoed across the Wallowa Valley in the wake of the front page article covering the discussion of the health district board.

It is a fair question.

The short answer is that the hospital is in much better financial condition than the schools, thanks in large part to superior management that has aggressively focused on controlling costs and increasing revenues.

The hospital is currently sitting on almost $2 million in cash, a record.

Last year's net revenues exceeded the past 52 years combined, another record

The new "Critical Access" designation gives the hospital the ability to collect Medicare payments at higher rates than other hospitals. That means that over time the federal government will provide 50 to 60 percent of the cost of building a new hospital in Wallowa County.

Even will all those federal funds Wallowa County will have to raise an additional $4 million. Where will that come from?

Contrary to the rumor mill that is already grinding away, it won't come from taxes. Hospital officials are committed to making sure that does not happen. They are acutely aware of the mood of Wallowa County voters toward tax increases.

Instead, the plan is to raise the balance through a combination of operating revenues, grants, and donations.

First things first, though.

The board has not yet decided whether building a new hospital is even in the cards. That is why board members voted this week to commission a feasibility study - so they can garner an objective view of current and projected revenues, demographics, and trends to see if there is any chance the numbers will indeed work. The numbers have to work or the project will die before it is born. That is just good business and, frankly, the kind of long-range planning that we wish were employed more often by school boards and city councils in Wallowa County.

But does Wallowa County really need a new hospital?

Don Nyberg thinks so. Nyberg is a hospital architect who is conducting an assessment of 12 hospitals in Oregon at the request of the Oregon Rural Health Association. Of the 12, Nyberg believes Wallowa Memorial is the most antiquated.

That assessment should come as no surprise because Wallowa Memorial, built in 1950, is the second oldest hospital in the state. Only the hospital in Burns is older, and that city is building a new one.

"At some point your ability to attract physicians is going to be severely restricted - and that would be a crisis for Wallowa County," said Ed Patterson, legislative consultant for the Oregon Rural Health Association and former state representative for Union and Wallowa counties.

Hospital administrator Larry Davy says that the lab, x-ray room, operating room, and patient rooms are so small there is simply nowhere to put the new technologies that are needed to allow the hospital to provide the best care possible and at the same time continue making money. Without an expansion Davy is certain revenues will start to decline.

Population trends suggest that the people of Wallowa County have no choice but to be pro-active about their hospital. Every year, senior citizens make up a larger percentage of the population. Seniors demand more and better health care ... not that younger folks can get by with second-rate hospital.

There is no question that the hospital is key to the health of Wallowa County. It currently brings in more than $9 million a year - from outside of the county - in the form of Medicare and insurance payments. It pay out $5 million in salaries and benefits, which is circulated over and over in the local economy.

The hospital has served the people of Wallowa County well for more than 50 years. There comes a time, however, when even the best kept facilities must be retired. That time is not far off for Wallowa Memorial Hospital. R.S.

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