Petaluma Valley Hospital sale only option

The only way to save Petaluma Valley Hospital is for voters to approve a sale to NorCal HealthConnect.|

The fate of Petaluma’s only hospital is now squarely in the hands of voters in the Petaluma Health Care District. There really is only one option at this point — sell Petaluma Valley Hospital and hope for the best.

It’s unfortunate that it has come to this, but such is the state of health care in 2020. Small publicly-owned hospitals, like 80-bed Petaluma Valley, have been unable to survive is the current climate.

The proposed sale, to an affiliate of Providence St. Joseph, is the end result of a five year process to find a long-term operator for the hospital, a process that laid bare the reality that there are not a lot of good options out there.

The original plan, to renew St. Joseph’s 20-year lease, fell apart for several reasons. The health care district opened up the process to other operators, but big players in the regional healthcare landscape took a pass on the hospital. The best option, southern California-based Paladin Healthcare, was unwilling to invest in Petaluma Valley Hospital.

It’s clear that the only option that ensures the continued survival of the hospital is to sell to NorCal HealthConnect, the secular affiliate of Providence St. Joseph.

It is regrettable that the sale would strip the public of Petaluma’s biggest healthcare asset, one that dates back nearly 70 years. The Petaluma Health Care District, a public agency, operated Petaluma General Hospital in 1946 before replacing it with Hillcrest Hospital 10 years later followed by Petaluma Valley in 1980.

But the sale would benefit Petaluma for several reasons. First it would provide the district with an infusion of more than $50 million, which it can use on public health initiatives in Petaluma including homelessness and mental health services, senior care, health education and equal access to healthcare.

Second, the secular operator has agreed to keep providing all services that are currently offered at the hospital. One of the reasons Providence St. Joseph could not agree on a long-term lease was the refusal of the Catholic healthcare provider to offer some female reproductive services like sterilizations. The secular nature of NorCal HealthConnect ensures that religious values do not factor into important healthcare decisions.

Third, NorCal HealthConnect has agreed to keep the hospital and emergency department open for at least 20 years. This is good news for the short term, but it means that the company could eventually close the facility if it is not profitable. Even worse is the commitment to keep the family birthing center open for just five years, meaning if it isn’t profitable in a short time, there may be no place to have a hospital birth in Petaluma.

Overall, the deal is about as good as we can expect for Petaluma Valley Hospital. Petaluma isn’t the only health care district that has decided to sell its hospital. Healdsburg is also selling its publicly-owned hospital to NorCal HealthConnect, making Providence St. Joseph, which also owns Santa Rosa Memorial and Queen of the Valley in Napa, a regional powerhouse.

We understand that the union that represents nurses at Petaluma Valley does not support the sale. Indeed, the union is in tense contract negotiations with the current tenant. We want the nurses, who are our frontline workers, to feel supported by management. Now that the hospital has a viable future, we hope the two sides can strike a deal that suits the nurses’ needs.

The hospital sale will be on the November ballot for voters to decide. We will withhold an official endorsement until we see the ballot language. But it is clear that there is not a better option that secures the hospital’s future. If voters reject the sale, there is not another operator clamoring to sign a long-term lease, and the district does not have the ability to run the hospital.

The sale of Petaluma Valley Hospital is not just the best option, it’s the only option.

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