Dariel Norris and Gene Pollard are competing for Position 2 of the King County Hospital District No. 4. The district comprises the cities of Snoqualmie, North Bend and Carnation, as well as unincorporated and rural areas nearby.
Norris has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Washington and has the occupations of hospital registered nurse and small business owner. She has also served on the King County Parks Levy review board and the Snoqualmie Valley Community Network board.
Pollard has degrees from the University of California, Riverside and Occidental College. He also attended the Naval War College where he earned a diploma. Pollard is a retired foreign service officer, Navy commander, according to his candidate statement on the King County Auditor’s Office website.
Biggest health care problem facing Snoqualmie/the health care district?
Norris: I would say the ability to meet the specific health care needs of the local community. The 2016 Community Health Data Report identified the following issues for the Hospital district: access, cancer, heart and lung disease, mental health, smoking, substance abuse, diabetes, homelessness for adults and youth, all with serious health consequences.
Pollard: The major problem facing the district is the long-term indebtedness of $100 million, the greatest of any comparable hospital in the U.S. This didn’t just happen overnight; it took years to accumulate. I attribute this to poor financial planning and incompetent policy making, especially by the hospital board’s finance committee headed up by commissioners David Speikers and Dariel Norris. Committee meetings were briefly open to other commissioners and the public under former superintendent Tom Parker, who left a year ago to take a position with Mammoth Hospital in California. But now the committee has decided to again close its meetings, so financial decisions come to the board for rubber-stamping without dissenting opinion or transparent discussion.
How do we address this problem?
Norris: At present, the hospital district hasn’t been able to reach out to the local community with supporting programs that aggressively address the above issues. Many who live in the district don’t realize the hospital has clinics, physical therapy or an infusion program. Lab services as well as endoscopy and colonoscopies are available. We have an X-ray department with not only an Xx-ray machine but also MRI and CAT scan machines. In addition, we also have an infusion program. Even if your primary doctor isn’t part of the Snoqualmie system, you can still have your test done close to home and have the results sent to your primary doctor. I believe the district needs to aggressively reach out to our local community, find ways to let them know what we have to offer. I would like to see programs such as nutrition classes from a dietitian or exercise classes from the physical therapy department. I would like the district to have support groups for those caring for family members with Alzheimer’s or dementia. I think day surgery and particularly orthopedics would be an asset for the community. Snoqualmie Valley Hospital has significant strengths. I sit on the quality committee. We get data that compares us with other local facilities. Based on the data we consistently do very well. If there is an issue, the staff addresses it immediately.
Pollard: Any organization $100 million in debt is in trouble by definition, especially where public money is involved. What’s needed is change — change at the top in the finance committee, and in the position of the interim superintendent. The district needs to do a national search to identify a superintendent with prior success in hospital leadership, preferably including experience restoring financially-troubled hospitals. The district also needs greater transparency and accountability in district operations. For example, the proposal for a new hospital was pitched to the community on the basis that the old hospital would be sold for $30 million to the Snoqualmie Tribe and a new hospital would cost $38.6 million. That sounded reasonable, but then the district failed to demand payment when due. With $28.5 million still owed, the district discounted the sale price by half, thereby losing about $10 – 14 million. I voted against the discounting. I’ve often been criticized for my “No” votes, but the fact is that if other commissioners had voted the way I have during my tenure, there would be no $100 million debt. Equally important to the success of this or any hospital is its communication with the public. The district is deficient. In fact, a local newspaper gave the hospital the grade of “F” in communicating with the public. Public information and advice on health issues have been missing, especially regarding preventative health. The public is uninformed about what’s going at the hospital. They don’t attend board meetings, held in the hospital basement, and there is essentially no media coverage. Importantly, the district needs to complete the Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA) required by the Affordable Care Act and also by the IRS to justify the hospital’s tax-exempt status. This is required every three years and must follow specific instructions. The district’s 2016 CHNA was a “quick and dirty” copy of Overlake data and did not comply with the instructions. The 2019 CHNA is becoming overdue, which means the district will be out of compliance. An updated CHNA would assist the district in choosing and budgeting for health care priorities that would benefit the community.
In which direction do you foresee health care in the city/district moving?
Norris: Health care, in Snoqualmie and throughout the country, is struggling with payer models as well as a physician shortage which is growing daily. To meet the needs of Snoqualmie, we need to provide additional services. Services for the very young to the very old and everyone in between. The services need to be close to home and readily available.
Pollard: Because of the indebtedness, the district is now desperately seeking an affiliation, currently with Overlake Medical Center of Bellevue. Overlake is considering a short-term lease arrangement, perhaps five to seven years, which I don’t consider viable. More importantly, I don’t find Overlake to be a suitable partner. This is based on evaluations by national rating organizations, which don’t list Overlake among the top six hospitals in the Puget Sound area. It’s also based on my own experience as a patient at Overlake. The district has made many mistakes over the years (witness the debt). I feel that any decision to affiliate with Overlake, whereby this private hospital would take over all hospital operations, would be a historic mistake. It should be noted that Overlake would not bring one dime to the partnership, in contrast to the merger that occurred between Swedish Medical Center and Stevens Hospital in Edmunds. The Everett Herald reported that Swedish planned to invest as much as $90 million in that partnership over 10 years. In contrast, Snoqualmie would receive no funds from Overlake that might be used to help offset its long-term debt.
What are your budget priorities?
Norris: I was appointed to the finance committee six years ago. I was shocked to see some of the unnecessary extravagant expenditures. This is no longer the case. We have streamlined the executive staff. We have continued to budget with priorities in mind to reduce the debt while meeting the health care needs of the community. The present hospital was built with revenue bonds, not tax-backed dollars. The revenue bonds require a sizeable amount of cash on hand. Which we continue to maintain. The finance director suggested we invest those funds instead of letting them sit in the bank at a low interest rate. After a presentation, the chair of the finance committee, made a recommendation to invest those dollars. I believe this to be one of the most responsible choices and decisions the board of commissioners has made. We have also benchmarked as a way of discovering what is the best performance being achieved. This information can be used to identify gaps in an organization’s processes in order to achieve a competitive advantage.
Pollard: My budget priority is to focus on austerity throughout the district. This includes looking at every position to make sure it’s really needed and properly compensated. I believe that some remain only because of the cronyism of prior administrations. A properly qualified new superintendent would be able to tighten things up and ensure the effective and economical operation of the district. Snoqualmie Valley Hospital and the Ridge Clinic belong to the taxpayers and residents of the district, not to hospital administrators or to the personal agendas of commissioners. Everyone associated with hospital governance and operations must remember they have a sacred trust to be good stewards of public funds.