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A Hard Decision and an Ongoing Mission

Joyce Newmyer is President and CEO of Adventist Health’s Pacific Northwest Region. She spoke to Spectrum about the Walla Walla General Hospital transfer and what the future looks like for the Adventist Health mission in Walla Walla.

Question: Our understanding is this transfer has been in the works for a while now. How long have conversations about a possible transfer been going on?

Answer: The Walla Walla community has been served by two hospital for almost 130 years. Saint Mary’s was here first, then Walla Walla General Hospital (WWGH) started a ministry here in the valley 118 years ago. With the university and several churches, WWGH's Adventist roots are very deeply planted in the Walla Walla community. So, this was not in any way an easy decision, but it is one that has spanned years. Folks I called last Monday, informing them about the decision, had this   response: “Wow, this has been decades in the making.”

What are the events that led up to the final decision that this was the right path for WWGH?

I knew how complicated the issues were for WWGH, and those issues were further complicated by a rapidly changing health care industry. Hearing that some people were not at all surprised by the decision was interesting. After much consideration, WWGH administration became convinced this was the best way to be responsible stewards of precious health care resources. Health care dollars are precious. As competitors, Saint Mary’s and WWGH were continually trying to one-up each other in a town that could, in reality, only support one hospital. The two hospitals were really slugging it out; WWGH competed hard and gave it every best effort and tried many, many business models.

Ten years ago, Saint Mary’s offered to buy WWGH, and WWGH declined because the organization wanted to do its very best to make it work. So, this is not an easy decision or one the organizatin came to lightly. The members of the administration prayed over the decision. We sought council on how to best meet the health needs of this community. We had tried in the past to acquire other organizations to help build critical mass, but none of those strategies came to fruition for one reason or another. Finally, we had to admit that this town can support one hospital, not two.

It is public record that Providence Health has over 75% of the market share here in Walla Walla. Adventist Health has 23%. What kind of a position of strength can WWGH negotiate from?  One of AH's Christian values is stewardship, and that means finding a position that is right for the patients and the employees.

Many have speculated that the transfer is happening to solve the hospital's debt problem, one report indicating the hospital is currently in the red by $60 million. Would you be willing to respond to these rumors? Do they accurately represent the hospital's current financial state and does debt represent the main reason (or one of the reasons) for the transfer?

WWGH is $68 million under water, and the debt is getting worse every year by the amount of three to five million per year. Administration has not been able to find a pathway out of that $68 million ditch, and this transfer seemed the most responsible use of the resources available to make sure health care continues to be delivered in a responsible way here in the valley.

As part of the transfer, Providence Health is giving WWGH $14 million over a 24-year period to do something important and to extend the Adventist Health mission. When WWGH expects losses of three to five million each year, there is not a lot the organization can do, but when it has an annuity of $14 million that can be invested straight into the community, that will allow administrators to do exciting things. I cannot tell you what exactly that money will be used for yet, but I can tell you it will be used to further the mission of Adventism and Adventist Health. I am working really hard in conjunction with another organization on plans for this money and look forward to sharing those plans soon.

Will you please describe the process involved in making the decision to transfer control? I assume the governing boards at both Adventist Health and Providence Health must conduct a vote before a decision like this is passed?

Yes, the Board of Trustees for Adventist Health voted just before the letter of intent was signed, and it gave the go ahead on it. The board members are incredibly smart and very thoughtful people who love the mission of Adventist Health and the Church. This was not easy for them—for any of us. I appreciated their thoughtfulness, the time they took to look at the various models we tried previously, and their recognition that in the end, this was the most responsible course of action.

Catholics and Adventists both have an invested interest in the health of the communities they are in, and both are responsible for some of the largest health systems in the world. How do the Catholic and Adventist health missions align with each other, and how do they differ? How do you see these similarities and differences working together for the Walla Walla community?

I know that one of the most difficult things for readers is that this is a Catholic organization. As a third generation Adventist, I get it. There are certainly differences between the Adventist and Catholic faith traditions, but we serve the same God. We both do what we do because Jesus healed. Catholic hospitals have been doing good work for a really long time and have been doing so in Walla Walla for 130 years. Their organization takes delivering consistent care that aligns with Jesus’ ministry very seriously. PH already has Adventist patients and employees. The organization is already well acquainted with many in the Adventist community. Both hospitals care for people of all faiths and employ people of all faiths. WWGH has been here working in the same ministry in the same purposes and will continue to do so now and into the future.

Elaine Couture, the chief executive officer for Providence Health & Services in Eastern Washington, and I have a great deal of respect for each other. She is very respectful of WWGH and the Adventist faith tradition, and she wants to honor those traditions. We both have a very long history of charitable care and trying to do the right thing for each patient. It is painful to think about losing control of an Adventist hospital that has served so many people for so many decades. And it is a loaded situation when losing control to a Catholic organization. But if I had to choose between people of another faith tradition taking control of our hospital or boarding up the doors and shuttering the windows, I would choose relinquishing control to the other organization. It is quite possible WWGH was headed to closure, but AH very actively sought a different solution.

How and when were employees notified of the transfer? Were certain employees made aware that this was a possibility in advance?

The letter of intent was signed on Thursday morning, and the following Monday, the regional team and I showed up at WWGH and had conversations with the board and the medical staff, and we held a townhall meeting for the employees. Because we told everyone right away, we did not yet have answers to some of their questions, but it was important to us to let them know as soon as we possibly could. We wanted to be respectful and honor their commitment to the hospital.

The official announcement about the transfer mentioned that no immediate staff changes would occur but that reductions may happen in the future. What actions are being taken to ensure as many WWGH employees as possible will remain employed?

This situation is personal for so many. It feels personal to me. My grandmother worked for WWGH in the 1940s, earning 40 cents an hour doing laundry. In the 1950s, she worked in the kitchen. She worked for that hospital, and now she’s buried just a short distance away. My aunt and uncle live in Walla Walla. So, this community and this hospital are part of my personal story. But it is not about me or my family—it is about all of the families affected. I have a great deal of empathy for an Adventist organization not being an Adventist organization anymore. It is painful. There is a sense of loss, of grief. I do not want to minimize that at all.

One of the most important things AH wanted was to ensure employment for as many people as possible, and I believe the organization has done that. At this point, Providence Health and Adventist Health are still competitors and need to respect all applicable laws which means we cannot jointly plan what the future will look like. But I do know PH intends to employ the majority of our people, and AH has tried to be good stewards to our people during the course of this transition.

What does the future look like for the Adventist Health mission in the Walla Walla area?

We intend to continue mission. It will look different. It will not be bricks and mortar and direct provision of care, but it will be loving, caring, and serving this community for decades to come.

What is the key point you want people to know about this transfer?

I hear their concerns. I understand the concerns. I share in the disappointment. I would have preferred AH maintain control of the hospital and continue to deliver the care we have for so many years, but it simply was not sustainable. I want people to know we tried every possible business model we could think of, and I believe this transfer is the most responsible thing we could do to be good stewards to the community, the employees, and the patients.

Are there any final thoughts or information you would like to share with our readers about this transfer?

Adventist Health takes very seriously the business we conduct and the mission we fulfill. One of the questions we hear is this: “How does the situation with WWGH affect how we deliver care and fulfill our mission in our other hospitals and health-related services (located in California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii)?” Adventist Health is alive and well, and it is very much seeking to fulfill its mission that honors the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, and hopefully this will help Him return faster. That is what the organization wants.

This was a hard decision and resulting transaction. My heart hurts for this, but this decision was the right one for the ongoing mission of Adventist Health. To drain resources on something that is not going to be a successful business model and subsequently drain the other communities is the wrong thing to do. Adventist Health has to be responsible in every market it serves.

 

Alisa Williams is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

Image Credit: AdventistHealth.org

 

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