As St. Joseph Health plans its departure from Petaluma Valley Hospital after operating the facility for 20 years, the company has recently failed to invest in critical infrastructure, making it difficult to retain doctors, according to a group of physicians who practice at the city’s hospital.
Several PVH doctors have signed a letter criticizing St. Joseph, which leases the facility, for what they described as neglecting the hospital. They contend that St. Joseph pays PVH doctors below the rate of other hospitals.
Todd Salnas, president of St. Joseph Health-Sonoma County, said that the company has invested $50 million in facility upgrades, new equipment and technology at the hospital during its tenure, more than three times the $14 million required in the lease. He acknowledged that smaller hospitals nationwide suffer from a physician shortage.
Doctors said circulating the letter was difficult during a holiday week, but at least 10 of the roughly 300 PVH doctors had signed on so far. In the letter, the local doctors said St. Joseph, which also operates Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa, has anticipated its departure from Petaluma and has failed to invest in the hospital.
“We the physicians and surgeons of Petaluma Valley Hospital have witnessed a steady decline in Petaluma Valley Hospital while leased by St. Joseph Health Care. This decline has occurred either by neglect or by design to disable and cripple our hospital prior to the scheduled departure of St. Joseph Health Care, whose lease has expired,” the doctors wrote in the letter.
The letter comes at a time of transition for the hospital that is owned by the Petaluma Health Care District. After failing to negotiate an extension to St. Joseph’s operating contract, the district last year selected southern California-based Paladin Healthcare to take over operations at Petaluma Valley. St. Joseph has agreed to stay on until November.
In a statement, Salnas said St. Joseph has worked to aggressively recruit physicians to the Petaluma area.
“We are committed to ensuring the residents of Petaluma have dedicated professionals to meet their health care needs,” he said. “That said, there is a well-known national and local physician shortage, especially among smaller community hospitals driven by growing patient care demand and physician retirements. Despite this, we continue to actively work on solutions in order to recruit top specialists, including offering additional pay and incentives.”
The transition from St. Joseph to Paladin has been painstakingly slow, causing considerable unease among the local medical community. Health care officials say the process will require a new electronic medical record keeping system, which could take up to a year. Paladin recently withdrew its offer to lease the hospital and instead is seeking a management agreement.
Salnas said St. Joseph was committed to serving patients in Petaluma.
“We acknowledge that this is a stressful time for the Petaluma Valley Hospital community due to the uncertainty about its future operations,” he said in the statement. “This is especially true for the caregivers and physicians who practice at the hospital. While we look forward to hearing from the District and learning more about their plans for the future of Petaluma Valley Hospital, we want to make clear our commitment to the hospital and the Petaluma community.”
Dr. Peter Leoni, the head of general surgery at PVH, said he signed the letter because he was frustrated with St. Joseph’s management. He said St. Joseph has prioritized investment in Memorial Hospital at the expense of Petaluma Valley.