Within minutes of the Jan. 8 announcement that Astria Regional Medical Center would be closing, Dr. Kevin Martin, the chief medical officer at Kittitas Valley Healthcare, or KVH, was on the phone with Marty Brueggemann, chief medical officer at Virginia Mason Memorial hospital in Yakima.
“This isn’t like Seattle, where you have four hospitals in a 3-mile area,” Brueggemann said. “When you’re in this area of Central Washington, it’s about collaboration and how you meet the needs of the community.”
Memorial and KVH have had a long-standing relationship, and KVH knew that Memorial would be significantly impacted by the patient capacity lost with Astria Regional’s closure.
Astria Health has continued operating primary, specialty care and home health services in Yakima, but with the organization still under the bankruptcy protection process, KVH officials are keeping a close eye for additional changes that could impact patient care.
“I have been really concerned about what comes next with Astria,” said KVH CEO Julie Petersen. “There are a lot of entities that come under Astria.”
KVH recently sent postcards to some Yakima County residents that emphasized one key point: “Always accepting new patients.”
“Our hospital, clinics, and specialty service are committed to providing you the high-quality care you need, without a long wait,” KVH wrote in the mailer.
The postcard — along with Martin’s phone call to Brueggemann — illustrates KVH’s willingness to help solve the short-term capacity issues that have and will continue to occur with Astria Regional’s closure.
KVH has had to step up when the community loses medical providers. As private providers in Ellensburg and the surrounding area retired or left town in recent years, the organization expanded its primary care system to accommodate additional patients.
Petersen believes that its primary care system could be of benefit to Yakima County residents, especially those who live in the upper part of Yakima County that is closer to Ellensburg.
“I think our primary care system in Kittitas County is second to none,” Petersen said. “We’re a short 30-minute drive from areas like Selah and East Valley.”
Kittitas Valley Healthcare has a 25-bed critical access hospital and several primary care and specialty clinics in Ellensburg and Cle Elum. Kittitas County has two public hospital districts with publicly elected boards that have a voice in KVH’s operations, one in Lower Kittitas County and one in Upper Kittitas County.
Like many rural public hospital districts, the focus of KVH has been to serve the patient base in Kittitas County. However, it also has captured patients from nearby counties, including Yakima, King and Grant counties.
“Lots of people who work in Kittitas County live in Yakima County,” Petersen said. “Sometimes it’s more convenient to get your health care where you work.”
The two key areas where KVH has been able to draw patients from outside Kittitas County are orthopedic care and primary care, Petersen said.
Larger hospitals are crucial for major services, such as cardiac and cancer care, but Petersen said there are patients who, if able, will opt to receive care from a smaller community health system.
“Our orthopedic program just has a regionwide (draw) for being very personalized,” Petersen said.
When patients need more specialized care, KVH wants to ensure they will be in trusted hands. An ongoing relationship with Memorial and other larger hospitals around Central Washington is crucial in maintaining that trust.
“When we can partner with (a hospital) that our medical staff and patients have trust in, we’re anxious to partner with them, not necessarily to compete with them,” Petersen said.
Memorial’s proximity to KVH — about 40 minutes — had made it the go-to hospital for a variety of services. Memorial also has a presence at KVH facilities, including its Ellensburg Specialty Center, which offers cancer care, ear nose & throat and spine services weekly.
“It’s easier for the patient (in Ellensburg) to come here than to Seattle, where they have to navigate a mountain pass,” Brueggemann said.
Memorial will play even more of a crucial role now that it’s the only hospital in Yakima. However, Petersen and KVH officials anticipate there may be challenges with capacity, especially in Memorial’s emergency department, in the short term.
KVH has other options if Memorial can’t accept KVH patients. For example, a patient who needs additional cardiac care may be sent to Confluence Health in Wenatchee. The Wenatchee hospital also has open heart surgery, something that is no longer available in Yakima after Astria Regional’s closure.
KVH did the right thing in establishing contact early on, said Shawnie Haas, vice president of patient care services for Memorial.
There have been several conversations, including one in-person at KVH, Brueggemann said.
“There are certainly changes that are happening,” Haas said. “Those are the relationships that will help carry us forward.”
While KVH considers Yakima County a secondary market, it has no plans now to build any clinics in Yakima County, Petersen said.
Prosser Memorial Health, which also runs a critical access hospital and has done outreach to Yakima County residents, runs a clinic in Grandview and has indicated an interest in opening additional clinics in the county.
“Our charge is to provide care locally,” Petersen said. “That means a combination of growing our own programs as our population grows and changes. It also means we have to maintain intentional relationships with hospitals like Virginia Mason Memorial.”