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Hospital hopefuls await financing study

A study needed to give Legacy Health Systems reasonable assurance that the proposed Columbia River Community Hospital is based on sound financial formula is nearing completion, said Gary Heide, president of the Columbia County Health District Board overseeing the project.

The study, which was expected to be completed more than a month ago, is needed before Legacy will fully pledge its support of the $22 million project.

'We've been meeting regularly with the Legacy people, and they wanted some more information before they were willing to sign off on it,' Heide said. 'It slowed the process down a little bit, but, you know, they know how to run a hospital.'

Exactly when the study will be available has not yet been made known.

Heide said a meeting between health district board members and Legacy staff is slated for today, Wednesday, April 2, to discuss the project.

A feasibility study conducted by a Washington consultant last year resulted in a scaled-back version of the hospital, including a reduction in the proposed number of beds. Also, the funding outlook anticipated a longer period of time before the hospital would turn a profit, and an increased reliance on fundraising activity.

Legacy's support of the project and the new study are critical pieces for the hospital. A favorable financial outlook would allow the hospital coalition to move forward on its application for a certificate of need from the Oregon Department of Human Services.

On Feb. 27, Pamela S. Vukovich, the interim president and CEO of Legacy Health System, restated the health organizations commitment to the community hospital project.

'Legacy will continue to honor the letter of intent we signed with you as you pursue the development of a new healthcare facility in your community,' Vukovich's letter says.

In June 2004, Vukovich signed a letter of intent expressing Legacy's commitment to working with county health officials to bring a critical access hospital to the district.

A federal change in 2003 that went into effect in 2006 altered how new hospitals are awarded 'critical access' status, a designation that gives hospitals stronger Medicaid reimbursement for indigent care. The change effectively knocked the proposed community hospital out of the running for critical access status, significantly changed its financial picture, and since then there has been an ongoing question mark about its long-term funding prospects.

Vukovich's letter last month erased some questions for the health board, not the least of which are rumors that employees at the Legacy-run urgent care clinic in St. Helens are voicing opposition to the hospital project.

'I believe there may be some misunderstandings among our staff and I need to talk with them and ensure that their conversations with patients about this topic are appropriate,' Vukovich wrote in her Feb. 27 letter.

The certificate of need program works as a de facto audit on the proposal. Started in 1971, its intention is to prevent the construction of hospitals that don't pencil out financially, and that could ultimately waste taxpayer dollars.

The health district's retrieval of a certificate of need is also necessary before the agency can conclude a widely publicized land swap between the city of St. Helens and the St. Helens School District, which would have the effect of opening land on Millard Road for the hospital.

Heide, who still practices as a preacher, said he remains convinced, despite recent criticism, that the hospital study will reveal a solid financial outlook.

'I know that there are those who strongly disagree with me on that, but I do, I believe,' Heide said. 'And believe me, I would not vote to go ahead if I didn't believe that.'