Columnist Sue Lempert cited a recent piece by the Bay Citizen in her column "Health Districts get slammed” in the March 26 edition of the Daily Journal to develop an argument against the Peninsula and Sequoia Healthcare Districts that resolves itself to two big accusations. The first: The county’s two health care districts don’t serve the indigent and poor or the county’s medical system. The second: Since both districts transferred operation of the hospitals they were formed in the 1940s to build (Peninsula and Sequoia hospitals) "they have long since outlived their mission.” She called for state legislation to "fix” the situation.
Both points are so far from the reality that I am compelled to correct the erroneous information.
For the record, the Bay Citizen article did not mention Sequoia Healthcare District, at all. Ms. Lempert assumed a faulty premise that evolved into broad generalizations, none of which fit Sequoia Healthcare District.
To start with the second error first: The California Legislature recognized that health care and the hospital business had changed dramatically and made changes in state law pertaining to health care districts — 18 years ago. Perhaps in 1946 sick and hurt people would make an appointment with a doctor, be sent to a hospital to be treated, go home and deal with medical bills as best they could. That was before $2 million MRI machines, arthroscopy and robotic surgery, specialty cardiology, endoscopy, cancer, endocrinology suites and dozens of others; before medication regimens costing tens of thousands of dollars, before the state mandated new hospitals be built at costs soaring above a half billion dollars each. Individual hospital operators like Sequoia that operated community hospitals found they could not support modern medicine as it has come to be practiced. Modern medicine is transacted between large chain hospital operators who can negotiate with multi-state insurance firms. As it came to pass with San Mateo County’s Sequoia Hospital, the hospital districts — with the overwhelming support of local voters — turned over their hospital operations to multi-hospital nonprofits, in Sequoia’s case Dignity Health. This is a good thing, considering that the alternative most likely would have closed the hospital.
In 1994, both houses of the Legislature passed, and the governor signed, SB 1169, which changed the designation of hospital districts to "health care districts,” recognized that they often did not, and probably could not, operate hospitals and gave the districts broad latitude to tend to community health in a competitive environment in which bottom-line-oriented hospital operators may or may not sacrifice services to the detriment of the public.
Far from contravening the law, Sequoia Healthcare District is following it precisely, evolving, as the state Legislature wants it to. Far from having "outlived their mission,” health care districts have a very critical mission to play, today and for many years to come. Sequoia Healthcare District now operates or funds many clinical, dental, wellness, food, nutrition and shelter programs for the benefit of the poor, the underinsured, 27,000 public school students, those who need breast cancer treatment at Sequoia Hospital and many others.
Which brings us to the second point. As for Sequoia Healthcare District’s service to the county, the district board provides $2 million a year to the operation of the county’s North Fair Oaks medical clinic. We give $1.35 million a year to the county’s Healthy Kids program for uninsured children, helping to make this one of the only counties in the state to have 100 percent medical insurance coverage for children under 18. In addition, our board is very excited about our partnership with the county’s Health Services Agency through which we will pay $4.3 million toward the cost of a new, consolidated public health clinic in south county.
As for the poor and indigent, Sequoia provides more than $600,000 annually to Samaritan House, a significant portion of which sustains Samaritan House’s free medical and dental clinics, and $250,000 annually to Ravenswood Family Health Center. The district also provides 10,000 meals a year to the free daily hot meal program operated by St. Anthony’s Padua Dining Room. We fund Meals on Wheels and many other nonprofit initiatives that neither the county, for-profit providers nor hospital operators support.
The list is much longer, but in the interest of brevity I would direct anyone interested to our website at www.sequoiahealthcaredistrict.com where everything we do, every program we fund, every nickel we spend is described and accounted for. Or check the mail, where we update residents with an annual report or a newsletter detailing how we collect and spend their money and how we manage to return $1.30 to community health for every tax dollar we collect.
If readers take away one idea from this essay, it should be that Sequoia Healthcare District constantly seeks ways to provide for the health care needs of all district residents, is doing so with a mission handed down by the state and plays a role in our community’s health that neither the county nor private enterprise can, or will, fulfill.
Kim Griffin is the president of the Sequoia Healthcare District Board of Directors.