Virginia Mason Memorial’s board of directors voted Wednesday to end the Yakima hospital’s affiliation with Seattle-based Virginia Mason and become an “independent, local health care system.”

The local hospital board’s decision comes several months after the Virginia Mason Health System started exploring the possibility of joining with CHI Franciscan, a Catholic nonprofit health system.

“I think this relationship for the almost last five years has been beneficial for both of us,” said David Hargreaves, chairman of the Virginia Mason Memorial board, in a phone interview Friday. “I think we learned a lot and gleaned a lot from them. I just think being part of a larger system, we just didn’t feel at this time was the best fit for us.”

Hargreaves emphasized that the hospital will continue working with Virginia Mason, as it did before the formal affiliation went into effect in 2016. Virginia Mason is a quality health care system, he said. “For needed referrals and other endeavors, we’ll continue to work with them.”

Virginia Mason, in a follow-up statement, also confirmed it would continue providing referral care.

“We look forward to continuing our strong relationship with Virginia Mason Memorial in this way, and as other opportunities arise,” Virginia Mason wrote in its statement.

The merger is moving forward. In a joint statement, Virginia Mason and CHI Franciscan said they are continuing to pursue the partnership and believe it will provide “a better patient experience, more accessible and high-quality care and a better value for the communities we serve.”

Gary Kaplan, CEO of the Virginia Mason Health System, said Virginia Mason remained committed to helping Memorial provide care in the Yakima area as the merger with CHI Franciscan moves forward.

Concerns about access

The merger had raised concerns in the local health care community. Last week, several community members advocated to end the affiliation during a meeting with Memorial’s board.

One major concern was local access to services and specialty care.

Among those voicing objections was Dr. Richard Twiss, a retired cardiology specialist who established the Yakima Heart Center in the 1970s. Twiss helped lead a group of retired physicians to advocate for Memorial to end its affiliation with Virginia Mason Memorial. The group took out a full-page advertisement in the Yakima Herald-Republic that voiced concerns with Virginia Mason’s proposed partnership with CHI Franciscan. The group also lamented the general deterioration of health care services in the Yakima Valley, and loss of specialty providers.

“We all respect the difficulty of their task, and the courage (the Memorial board) showed in being willing to take this step,” Twiss said.

Twiss said the move to end the Virginia Mason affiliation and resume Memorial’s independence was a necessity. But more work needs to be done to recover the region’s health care service losses.

“The work in rebuilding the medical community starts now,” he said. “It’s going to require the leaders of the medical community and the hospital to work together to put together a program that is viable and consistent with the current medical and economic situation.”

Ultimately, the board’s decision was about the best response to fulfill the hospital’s continued commitment to providing high-quality health care in the Yakima Valley, Hargreaves said.

“I think part of it is the recognition that Yakima has unique health care needs,” Hargreaves said. “I think the only way to be successful is to collaborate and partner with all our health care partners to make sure we deliver safe, quality and accessible health care.”

Hargreaves said the board hadn’t yet determined a timeline to unwind the affiliation but expects it to take anywhere from 30 to 90 days.

Other concerns

Advocates statewide also have raised concerns the merger will limit access to reproductive health care and Death with Dignity services. CHI Franciscan uses the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which don’t allow physician-assisted death for terminally ill patients and abortion.

Memorial’s decision was applauded by several statewide groups that have voiced concern about the merger’s impact on reproductive health care and Death with Dignity services. Among the groups co-signing in the statement were ACLU of Washington, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, End of Life Washington, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Washington State, Cedar River Clinics, Compassion & Choices, Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawai’I and Planned Parenthood of Greater Washington and North Idaho.

“We are relieved that Memorial Hospital in Yakima has chosen to put patients and workers first and will not be part of the Virginia Mason—CHI Franciscan merger. As a result, residents in Yakima will continue to have access to essential medical services, including reproductive and end-of-life care,” the groups wrote in their statement. “Unfortunately, the merger will still negatively impact health care access for thousands of Washingtonians. No Washingtonian should face the loss of services due to hospital mergers, and the state should take strong action to provide meaningful oversight of health system consolidations.”

Hargreaves said he felt there was a lot of misinformation, including that Virginia Mason Memorial would become a Catholic hospital and be bound by the religious directives limiting certain services. The hospital would remain a secular hospital, he said.

Memorial is Yakima’s only hospital after the closure of Astria Regional Medical Center in January. Astria Health filed for bankruptcy protection in 2019. It continues to operate hospitals in Sunnyside and Toppenish.

Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital started its affiliation with Virginia Mason in January 2016 to weather challenges in the health care industry, including falling Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Another goal was to align the organization with a health care system that had national and worldwide standing. The hospital changed its name to Virginia Mason Memorial to reflect the new affiliation.

Hargreaves said that the board did not finalize a name change but would likely go back to the former Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital name. Even after the affiliation, the hospital retained its formal nonprofit name, the Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital Association.

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