Help sought for WhidbeyHealth as pandemic causes financial pain

WhidbeyHealth isn’t going to close its doors overnight, but the public hospital district’s financial situation is dire, according to hospital officials.

WhidbeyHealth Medical Center was one of five rural hospitals listed in Washington State Hospital Associations March 20 letter asking Gov. Jay Inslee to set aside funding for hospitals experiencing “extreme financial distress” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While an online petition also asks Inslee to provide cash assistance to the hospital, the community is rallying to help. WhidbeyHealth Foundation raised $42,000 in donations and matching funds in the first day of a new campaign. Many people are sewing face masks for the hospital while others have been donating meals, gift cards and other items for medical staff.

The hospital association’s letter states that WhidbeyHealth and the four other hospitals face “imminent closure,” but hospital CEO Ron Telles and Board President Ron Wallin called this language “regrettable.”

“On behalf of our entire staff at WhidbeyHealth, we want to assure our community that we are here and committed to providing exceptional care for everyone who needs us,” they wrote in a letter to the editor.

Still, the situation is grim and will only get worse without outside help, officials said.

The hospital currently has 20.27 days of cash on hand, while the hospital association described facilities with less than 45 days of cash on hand as needing help.

Telles explained the WhidbeyHealth’s financial problems during a Facebook Live session. He said 70 percent of the hospital’s revenues come from outpatient services, but the governor ordered hospitals to put elective surgeries and procedures on hold.

Telles estimated that insurance reimbursements will be reduced by nearly $2 million a month as a result.

At the same time, costs have increased. Telles said it cost about $100,000 in wages to prepare for the pandemic.

The hospital hired three nurses for a coronavirus hotline. The hospital spent $170,000 on personal protective equipment in just one week.

In all, costs related to the virus will be more than $1.6 million a month, he estimated.

“This is a real burden,” he said. “Not just to our hospital, to rural hospitals across the country.”

Even before the pandemic, WhidbeyHealth had been struggling financially.

The hospital district lost money in the last couple of years and had just 25 days of cash on hand in January, although Telles had predicted a 2.9 percent profit by the end of this year.

Telles said the federal coronavirus stimulus package contains $130 billion to help hospitals, but he doesn’t yet know the details of what WhidbeyHealth may be eligible for.

In response to the financial crisis, a Whidbey resident posted a petition on thepetitionsite.com that asks Inslee to provide “immediate cash assistance” to WhidbeyHealth.

A total of 1,142 people signed it as of Monday afternoon.

The petition points out that the population of Whidbey Island is particularly at risk since 30 percent of residents in Central and South Whidbey are over 65 years old. It states that Naval Air Station Whidbey Island depends on WhidbeyHealth Med-ical Center and clinics to provide urgent medical care to its personnel.

“We need a financially secure WhidbeyHealth system,” it states, “to avoid a public health catastrophe on Whidbey Island, one that would have devastating local effects and impact our national security.”

In the meantime, WhidbeyHealth Foundation started the COVID-19 Response Fund this week to help with the costs of equipment.

“It’s the crisis behind the crisis,” said Helen Taylor, executive director of WhidbeyHealth Foundation.

“It’s not hyperbole to say that not just lives, but the future of healthcare on this island is at stake. If you are able to give, there has been no time in WhidbeyHealth’s history that your donations will have a greater or more immediate impact.”

Funds are needed to purchase masks, protective gowns, face shields and critical medical supplies and equipment, Taylor said.

Like other nonprofit organizations, WhidbeyHealth Foundation is facing challenges of its own.

Taylor said the foundation cancelled its annual gala, a fundraiser that brought in $140,000 last year.

Fortunately, the community is quick to help.

“The response has been immediate,” she said, “which is good because the need is immediate.”

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