Virginia Mason Memorial

FILE — An entrance to Virginia Mason Memorial Hospital in Yakima, Wash.

There were many unanswered questions and deep concerns in Yakima regarding the impending merger of Virginia Mason Health System — which operates Yakima’s lone hospital, Virginia Mason Memorial — and CHI Franciscan, a Catholic nonprofit health system.

Then came the surprising news last week that Memorial’s board of directors had voted to end the hospital’s four-plus-year affiliation with Seattle-based Virginia Mason. Hospital officials said Memorial will continue its relationship with Virginia Mason for referrals and other health-related matters but will officially be independent. The process of removing affiliation is expected to take one to three months. Meanwhile, the merger is expected to move forward.

A few of those bigger questions related to the merger were answered with last week’s news. There were fears that Tacoma-based CHI Franciscan’s rules would limit Yakima patients’ access to certain types of reproductive health care and end-of-life services. Memorial officials had noted that after the merger the hospital would be acting in compliance with the Catholic-based CHI Franciscan’s religious directives. However, David Hargreaves, chairman of the Memorial board, said last week that there was much misinformation surrounding the proposed merger and that Memorial would remain secular.

Some big questions remain. Will independence for Memorial lead to growth in specialty medical services here? A group of retired doctors who had lobbied for Memorial’s independence believe it’s a good first step — and a necessary step for an area that lost a full-service hospital in January and has been witnessing a waning in specialty services for several years. Astria Regional Medical Center, the Yakima hospital that closed due to financial difficulties, offered open heart surgery.

This editorial board had serious concerns regarding the possible merger — for instance, was it a merger or a CHI-Franciscan takeover? And what guarantees would be offered that access to local health care would improve and not backslide? A VM official said in an email recently — before Memorial’s decision to sever ties — that the merger would lead to “innovative models of care delivery across the entire continuum of care, while enhancing quality and the patient experience.”

The retired doctors were skeptical — hence their decision to take out a full-page ad in the Herald-Republic a few weeks ago to express their concerns. In the ad, the doctors listed a number of ways that medical care has deteriorated here in the past 20 years and predicted even more backtracking in specialty fields and other medical care options in the Yakima area should the merger take place.

They met recently with Memorial’s board members and made their case in a confidential setting. A short time later, the board made its decision for independence.

We like the idea of an independent local hospital that can focus more on the unique needs of its community. Finances are likely to be a concern with a large number of patients in the Yakima Valley on Medicare and Medicaid. We must trust Memorial’s leaders to make pragmatic decisions.

But a large, overarching concern remains — the same issue we had with the proposed merger. Transparency is paramount. This is our medical care at stake here. To the leaders at Memorial and in the health care community at large, we seek openness and honesty. Tell us and show us what the future holds.

Meanwhile, we mark some recent good news in the local medical world: The pending sale of the Astria Regional building and its neighboring Medical Office Building to a local investment group, Yakima MOBIC LLC, that plans to use the buildings for health care services.

Chris Waddle of Hogback Development Co., the investment group manager, said that while investors are seeking a financial return, it’s also important to them to help generate better health care access in the area. “Our intent in every sense of the phrase is to help provide better access to health care,” Waddle said.

Hogback, best known for commercial developments, has a strong track record in the community, and we are hopeful that the group’s $20 million investment will be a shot in the arm for a medical community that has endured more than its share of disappointments in recent months.

Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Bruce Drysdale.