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Reports lay out staffing challenges at Astria Health hospitals
 Mai Hoang  / 

Late last month, Astria Health confirmed it had laid off employees as part of an effort to consolidate management of its three hospitals — Astria Regional Medical Center, Astria Sunnyside Hospital and Astria Toppenish Hospital — and to provide a means to better staff those working directly with patients.

The layoffs came several weeks after Arizona attorney Susan N. Goodman, the appointed patient care ombudsman for Astria Health during its bankruptcy, released a second round of reports regarding patient care at the three hospitals and Astria Health’s other clinics.

Astria Health filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in May. As part of that process, Goodman was appointed to monitor patient care at Astria Health facilities. Goodman has served or is serving in the same role in nearly 30 health care bankruptcies across the country, including that of the Kennewick Public Hospital District in 2017, according to bankruptcy filings.

In the October reports, Goodman makes clear that staffing shortages have continued to be an issue, especially for Astria Regional Medical Center in Yakima, the largest of the three hospitals. Goodman said while patient care had not been affected by the bankruptcy, she plans to visit Astria Regional more frequently “given all of the various dynamics.”

“While nursing openings were detailed most heavily in the (first) report, other departments have also faced departures with gaps in the replacement of core team members for various reasons,” Goodman wrote in a report about a recent visit to Astria Regional that was filed with the court on Oct. 9.

Astria Health declined to answer questions regarding the layoffs or the staffing issues outlined in Goodman’s reports. Officials did note by email that no nursing positions were affected in last month’s staff reductions tied to consolidation of services:

“Astria Health’s highest priority is, at all times, focused on patient care and safety. No nursing positions were impacted by the systemwide leadership and shared support services model. That model will allow the organization to expand resources at the bedside. We have been successful in recruiting additional nurses to all of the Astria Health facilities, and we continue to actively recruit for nursing and other needed positions.”

The company did not respond to a question about how many people were laid off.

As Astria Health continues its work to emerge out of bankruptcy, here are a few things the ombudsman reports said about the organization’s staffing and operations:

1. Patient care hasn’t been affected. While Goodman had concerns over staffing and other issues, such as a lack of third-party transportation services for patients at Astria Sunnyside Hospital, she stopped short of stating those issues were negatively affecting patient care. However, she said she would heavily monitor the issue in future visits. Regarding Astria Regional, the facility most hit by staff shortages: “While patient care has not been affected to date and patient interviews did not elicit any immediate direct care concerns, (I) would be remiss to not convey the staff and clinician concern regarding the ongoing strain with staffing.”

2. Employees are leaving due to uncertainty over the bankruptcy. While Astria Health maintains it’s making progress with a new revenue collection vendor and that it’s aiming to emerge out of bankruptcy by year’s end, that assurance doesn’t seem to be enough for some. In Goodman’s reports, she notes employees who have departed or were planning to leave due to concerns over the hospital’s bankruptcy, including a nurse at Astria Regional. “In following up with this team member, the departure was reported as directly related to bankruptcy uncertainty,” Goodman wrote.

3. Some employees have worked so many hours they can no longer accrue additional paid time off. In reports on both Astria Regional and Astria Toppenish, Goodman cited frustrations by employees over having to work so much that they’ve accrued the maximum amount of paid time off, or PTO. “(I) constantly observed departmental examples of staffing accomplished through staff pulling extra shifts, forgoing PTO and/or taking extra calls to provide coverage. This cycle has caused many staff to ‘max out’ on their PTO,” Goodman wrote in her report on Astria Regional. She notes this issue in the Astria Toppenish report as well. “Toppenish employees share similar frustrations associated with reaching PTO accrual caps,” Goodman wrote.

4. Astria Health’s relationships with certain staffing groups and vendors were souring before the bankruptcy occurred. In her report on Astria Regional, Goodman addresses staffing in the anesthesiology department. In that section, Goodman mentions a community-based specialty group that opted not to perform services at Astria Regional. The bankruptcy was only a minor factor in the departure, and the group had already had a “series of disagreements” with Astria Regional’s operational decisions in the last few years. In a report on Astria Toppenish, Goodman references a note she made in a previous report that the hospital’s maintenance and facilities department was experiencing a “great deal of vendor strain and fractured relationships” prior to bankruptcy. That strain caused issues when it came time to get parts and service for its equipment, such as its boilers.

5. Employees are not comfortable with voicing concerns, which could impact the ability to monitor patient care. In the Astria Regional report, Goodman notes two examples of employees hesitating to voice concerns. In one case, Goodman said that her role in monitoring patient care was “further complicated by staff and clinicians generally reporting unease in chatting” because they feared reprisal especially if Astria Health opted to do additional layoffs. In the second example, she stated that employees were hesitant to make comments on a compliance hotline, even if they were anonymous. “Because of the number of departments with limited staffing, employees expressed the concern that merely the removal of the employee name does not ensure anonymity,” Goodman wrote.

General Election ballots due by 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 5
 Phil Ferolito  / 

Have you turned in your ballot yet?

If not, you have until tonight, Tuesday, Nov. 5. Several drop-off boxes scattered across the county will remain open until 8 p.m.

You can still mail them, too, but be sure to do so before the last pickup. Ballots postmarked later than Nov. 5 won’t be accepted.

If you’re not registered to vote, you can do that as well today at two locations: The Yakima County Courthouse at 128 N. Second St. in Yakima or Neighborhood Health Sunnyside at 617 Scoon Road in Sunnyside.

Voter registration has to be done in person today and the deadline is 8 p.m.

There are several races involving city councils, school boards and an initiative to cap car-tab fees on today’s general election ballot.

Initiative 976 — the work of former West Valley resident Tim Eyman — seeks to cap auto licensing fees at $30 for vehicles weighing under 10,000 pounds.

The initiative also would scrap transportation benefit districts, which allow cities to assess up to an additional $40 on annual car tab fees without seeking voter approval.

Several cities here have assessed up to $20 in such districts. Funds collected are used to pay for road improvements.

Yakima city officials say losing the transportation benefit district would prevent future projects from getting done, such as the reset of the North First Street project.

There are 53 city council races countywide with 23 of them contested.

Races in Wapato, Yakima and Selah are seeing the most competition. All seven races in Wapato are contested. Yakima and Selah each have four contested races.

Several school board races also are on the ballot.

Ballot drop-box locations

Yakima: 128 N. Second St.; East Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Selah: 115 W. Naches Ave.

Naches: 29 E. Second St.

Tieton: 418 Maple St.

Union Gap: West Ahtanum Road

Parker: 360 Columbia Road

Moxee: 255 W. Seattle Ave.

Toppenish: 401 Fort Road; 21 W. First Ave.

Zillah: 503 First Ave.

Wapato: 119 E. Third St.

Harrah: East Pioneer Street.

White Swan: 240 Curtis St.

Granger: 102 Main St.

Sunnyside: Corner of South Eighth Street; 617 Scoon Road

Grandview: 207 W. Second St.

Mabton: 305 N. Main St.

Study: Alien grasses are making more frequent US wildfires

WASHINGTON — For much of the United States, invasive grass species are making wildfires more frequent, especially in fire-prone California, a new study finds.

Twelve non-native species act as “little arsonist grasses,” said study co-author Bethany Bradley, a University of Massachusetts professor of environmental conservation.

Wherever the common Mediterranean grass invades, including California’s southern desert, fires flare up three times more often. And cheatgrass, which covers about one-third of the Intermountain West, is a big-time fire promoter, Bradley said.

“I would not be surprised at all if invasive grasses are playing a role in the current fires but I don’t think we can attribute to them directly,” Bradley said.

University of Utah fire expert Phil Dennison, who wasn’t part of the study but says it makes sense, said, “In a lot of ways, California was ground zero for invasive grasses. Much of California’s native perennial grassland was replaced by Mediterranean annual grasses over a century ago. This study doesn’t look at invasive grasses in the areas that are burning in California, but invasive grasses are contributing to the fires there.”

Experts say the areas burning now in California are more shrubs and grasses than forests, despite what President Donald Trump tweeted over the weekend.

“This is a global problem,” said University of Alberta fire expert Mike Flannigan, who wasn’t part of the study but said it makes sense. “I think with climate change and human assistance we are moving to a grass world. One region they should have mentioned is Hawaii where wildfires are increasing in large part due to invasive grasses.”

Invasive species are spreading more because of climate change as warmer weather moves into new areas, said study lead author Emily Fusco, also of the University of Massachusetts. New England and the Mid-Atlantic are seeing new invasive and more flammable grasses, Bradley said.

The study in Monday’s journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looks at the connections between a dozen species of invasive grasses and fires nationwide, finding fires occur more often in places with the non-native grasses. But the study did not find a link between invasive grasses and the size of the fires.

Four of these species, including cheatgrass and common Mediterranean grass, are in California. These grasses get dry and then watch out, Fusco said.

“When you start a fire normally you want kindling,” Fusco said. “The grasses are, more or less, like kindling.”

If someone lights a match and throws in the middle of a forest, it is unlikely a fire will start, but throw it in a field of cheatgrass “and odds are that it’s going to catch,” Bradley said.

“We are the reason that invasive species are here. We are the reason that they get spread around,” Bradley said.

Flanagan noted that invasive plants that are not grasses also feed the wildfire problem.

While most outside experts said the study was important, wildfire expert LeRoy Westerling at the University of California, Merced said that with wildfires the size is key so this study is less valuable because it measures frequency.

While size matters in forest fires, study author Bradley said mid to small size fires are the ones “in everybody’s backyard” and affect people and their buildings more.


Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears .


Things are looking up
Goldendale Observatory back in action in time for Mercury transit
 Pat Muir  / 

The public will get its first glimpse of the newly renovated Goldendale Observatory this weekend, just in time to catch a celestial phenomenon that won’t happen again until 2032.

The state-run observatory, which closed in April 2018 for a $5.6 million renovation that’s nearly complete, will celebrate a soft reopening Friday so visitors can see the planet Mercury pass in front of the sun, a rare occurrence known as a “transit of Mercury.” The chance to see that is a bonus, but folks in Goldendale — as well as astronomy buffs everywhere — are mostly just excited to see the facility’s doors open again.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from local people and a lot of it coming from other places in the state and the country and even overseas,” Goldendale Mayor Mike Canon said.

The observatory is unique in that it gives the public access to its 24.5-inch reflector telescope in an area known for its dark skies. That telescope, built in the 1960s by four amateur astronomers from Vancouver and donated to the city of Goldendale, which raised donations to build the observatory, is among the items improved in the renovation. It’s gotten a new mirror and is expected to offer clearer views.

“We’ll see essentially the same objects, but very dark objects will look brighter and detailed objects will look sharper,” said facility administrator Troy Carpenter. “We’ll see the clouds of Saturn, the shadow of Saturn’s rings, the shadow of Saturn on the rings.”

But the telescopic images are hardly the only improvement guests will notice. The observatory opened in 1973 and had never had a significant upgrade. Much of it was demolished last year, and the building that replaced it has significantly more lobby and auditorium space, as well as new exhibits and an expanded parking lot.

“A lot has changed,” said state Parks and Recreation Commission spokeswoman Anna Gill. “The overall customer experience is going to be a lot better than it was in the past.”

Its reopening means people will once again have access to glimpses of space the public rarely gets to see directly, said Central Washington University physics and astronomy professor Bruce Palmquist.

“It’s definitely exciting,” he said. “The telescope there is not a telescope for research; it’s a telescope to get the public interested. Twenty-four inches is pretty big, and most people don’t have access to that.”

Having taken students to the observatory over the years, Palmquist has seen the “astronomy carnival” atmosphere at the place during big astronomical events. People will bring their own telescopes and congregate there, celebrating science while pondering existence. Space, after all, remains mysterious to even those who know it best, he said.

“And the Goldendale Observatory is a go-between, or a translator, for us here on the Earth’s surface to connect with that,” Palmquist said.

Canon, who said he hopes the renovated facility will drive tourism to his city and provide a resource for students, believes the observatory could well inspire a whole new group of scientists. It’s hard to look through the main telescope there and not be moved, he said.

“You just get a whole different perspective on life,” he said. “The universe is so enormous and you realize you’re a part of it all — though a smaller part than you thought when you walked in.”

That sensation, along with educational presentations by Carpenter that help contextualize it, is rare for a public observatory, Canon said. And Carpenter agreed.

“It is unusual to get to go to a place with such a big telescope and such dark skies and get some education,” he said.

The state park lost its International Dark-Sky Association certification in 2016, but groups in Goldendale are working to win it back, said Dana Peck, director of the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce. John Barentine with the dark-sky group said he’s aware of those efforts and welcomes them.

“There would be no prejudice against them,” he said.

Besides that initiative, Carpenter said he plans to continue pushing for state funding for a ramp to a rooftop observation deck. That could happen within the next two years, he said.

The current work should be done in time for a wider grand opening this spring. If you’d like to see the observatory before then, it’s open to the public  2 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. this Friday through Sunday and 6:30-10:30 a.m. Monday for the Mercury transit viewing. It will also be open 2-4 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Nov. 30 through Dec. 1 and Dec. 27 through Dec. 29.

Those interested in visiting during those periods must schedule a visit via email at goldendale.observatory@parks.wa.gov or online at www.goldendaleobservatory.com.