Opinion

Valley/UW alliance meeting raised some questions: Editor's Note

Last week I sat in on a meeting about the new strategic alliance that’s being vetted between Valley Medical Center and the University of Washington School of Medicine.

If you haven’t heard about this concept yet, you should - and over the next few months, unless you have been living under a rock, you probably will.

Under this proposal, Valley Medical Center would join forces with the UW, as a way to expand the health care Valley provides to South King County. Valley wouldn’t give up its name, employees or identity, but it would get more of the specialized medical services that the UW can provide. And the UW, which already has clinics in South King County, would add south King County as part of its service area.

Overall, I think this is a good idea. We live in an era where smaller public hospital districts – like the one operating Valley – are getting eaten up by bigger health organizations. They’re losing their identity and vision in this gobbling-up process.

Under the alliance proposed by VMC and UW, our local hospital wouldn’t be losing those things. In fact, it would gain things that should keep it au courant with the bigger health-care providers coming into the region.

Enough said. There are people lining up to say these things – and they’re saying them better than me, if that informational video by Valley, which shows apparently dozens of supporters saying this idea is great, is any indicator.

But what I did find worrisome at last week’s meeting, was the response audience members got, when it came to who would run the thing.

There would be a new board formed to oversee the UW/Valley alliance. Part of this 13-member board will consist of Public Hospital District 1’s five elected directors.

The rest, including another five people from south county, will be appointed by the UW board of regents.

That makes for just five elected officials on a board of 13.

(I should add here that our elected hospital board will continue to operate as a separate body on decisions specific to the publicly funded hospital district, including use of tax dollars.)

Dr. Bob Thompson, the medical director of Valley’s primary-care clinics, and the main speaker at last Friday’s meeting, outlined this arrangement.

He went so far as to say an appointed board had more benefits than an elected board, because its members will be selected to integrate “very nicely” with each other.

He also suggested that voters don’t really think about group cohesion when they vote for individual candidates.

Perhaps that’s true. Public process can be a messy business, as our own hospital district board has aptly demonstrated at times. Democracy has a certain “warts and all” spin to it, and that can make for a bumpy road when crafting policy.

But what about the risk on a board where the appointed majority who “integrates nicely” now starts marching in lockstep?

If that happens, whose interests do they represent?

Dr. Thompson talked about the five local appointees being chosen for their dedication to their community, and described the combination of a public hospital board and an appointed board as “the best of both worlds.”

Another gentleman in the audience, though, said aloud what I was thinking.

“My concern is that the five who are appointed are going to be loyal to those who appointed them,” he said.

As I’m writing this, I’m worried my words will have a deleterious effect on what actually seems like a good idea: a joint health-care entity aimed at getting more of the services south King County needs, and without losing a truly terrific public hospital to do it.

But people in south King County are two things, and both need to be acknowledged, when it comes to selling them on a concept.

1. They’re not Seattle. South King County has some of the most medically vulnerable people in the county, and health care already is a luxury. They need responsive leadership taking their best interests to heart, even if these decisions aren’t the most profit-bearing ones.

2. They’re not apathetic. They want to know the criteria for who’s getting picked for anything, and they’re sophisticated enough to know when someone’s trying to smooth things over on them.

But don’t take my word for all this. Go to one of these information meetings yourself and ask the questions. Ask them now, while this concept is still in its formative stages.

South county needs an alliance like this, but we need to make sure it has our fingerprints on it.

Here’s the schedule for future informational meetings:

• Newcastle

March 10, 6-8 p.m.

Coal Creek YMCA

13750 Newcastle Golf Club Road, Newcastle

• Covington

March 16, 6-8 p.m.

Covington City Hall

16720 S.E. 271st St., Covington

• Maple Valley

March 18, 8-10 a.m.

Lake Wilderness Lodge

22500 S.E. 248th St., Maple Valley

•SeaTac

March 29, 6-8 p.m.

SeaTac City Hall

4800 S. 188th St., SeaTac

Information also is available online at www.valleymed.org.

Questions and comments can be e-mailed to affiliation@valleymed.org; and there’s a hotline for information, questions and comments: 425-656-5056.

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