Mental health focus of hospital election forum

Three candidates give views

Olympic Medical Center’s role in addressing patients with mental health issues was delved into this week by three people asked if they were going to do something about it.

At-large Clallam County Hospital District 2 candidates Heather Jeffers, Karen Rogers and Steve Blackham offered their views on running for OMC hospital commissioner on July 13 at the Port Angeles Businesses Association’s final forum for the Aug. 3 primary election.

The seat is held by longtime Commissioner and former board President Jim Leskinovitch, who is not running for re-election.

The county elections office mailed 53,400 ballots to county voters last week. All but 1,750 include the hospital commissioner race featured at last week’s forum, county elections coordinator Susan Johnson said in an email.

Ballots must be postmarked Aug. 3 or hand-delivered by 8 p.m. that day to be counted.

Making their pitch at the forum were Blackham, the hospital’s retired clinical laboratory director; Jeffers, Avamere Olympic Rehabilitation of Sequim administrator and a former Sequim School Board member; and Rogers, a consultant, a former Port Angeles City Council member and former council-appointed mayor.

The person elected in the Nov. 2 general election will earn $128 for each day of official district business up to $12,288 a year and will receive the same medical and dental benefits as OMC employees.

Blackham said he has talked with hospital board members and Leskinovitch about challenges facing OMC, noting they include medical-services reimbursements and employee recruitment.

“We have over 200 open positions at the hospital and a staff of 1,600,” Blackham said. “Guess what? We try to recruit new people, and there’s no housing supply.”

On reimbursements, “we’re living with an 83 percent cross-section of Medicare (and) Medicaid, that’s incredible,” he said.

Rogers, an OMC Foundation board member, said OMC is dealing with issues similar to other hospitals across the U.S.

“So it takes critical thinking, and planning and looking forward,” she said. “So that’s what I’m going to bring is looking forward, not coming in with something that I believe that has to change. There’s a lot to learn.”

As a “burning issue,” she said she wants to get the word out to community members about what the 67-bed hospital has to offer, adding “there’s a lot of critics out there” who are not aware of OMC’s services.

Matthew Rainwater, former county GOP chairman and founder of Pennies for Quarters, recalled that a person he knew who had to stay overnight at the hospital was a few doors down from a male who was “extremely verbal, extremely loud, extremely abusive to nurses,” and it affected her stay, making it impossible to sleep and increasing her anxiety.

He asked what the candidates would do “to segregate that type of atmosphere for the patients having to stay overnight?”

“This is a hot topic and it is a big problem right now in our community, serving that population,” Jeffers said.

“As far as the role of a commissioner, that’s going to come into play with just looking at policies,” and looking at what resources are needed for those patients, she said.

“It’s a big problem, and I deal with that personally and professionally a lot, so I’m very familiar with that issue.”

Blackham called mental health services one of the biggest health care problems Clallam County faces.

“We do not have adequate mental health coverage,” he said.

“In fact, much of the (emergency room) crowding is due to mental health patients that we’re trying to handle.”

OMC should dedicate “a small but significant portion of the hospital beds to mental health,” Blackham said.

“The problem is, mental health is not well reimbursed, either, which makes it even more challenging, but it is something we need to do.”

Rogers recalled about 20 years ago when voters rejected constructing a mental health center.

“I know why, that’s a very hard stigma to look at,” she said.

“Where would we be today if the community hadn’t done that? We’d be a leader because we took responsibility for our community.”

The hospital, as a 24-7, 365-day-a-year health provider “can’t be everything to everyone,” she said.

“That business model won’t pencil” out, she said, calling for a “true leverage partnership” with a entity such as Peninsula Behavioral Health.

“This is when you partner,” Rogers said.

Jeffers said dealing with the issue goes beyond partnering with Peninsula Behavioral Health.

“They are pretty maxed out as it is,” she said.

“We also need to look at what added resources OMC can add and help deal with these issues, and also look into the root cause,” she said.

“As a social worker, I’ve seen that there are interventions that could happen far beyond getting to point of crisis that could have been recommended and caught by the EMT person responding.

“There’s other resources we need to look at as a whole system, too.”

Beckham said he agreed with Rogers that OMC needs to collaborate more.

“That being said, as Heather also said, Peninsula Behavioral Health is very strapped itself, so there’s not an easy answer.”

Beckham said he wold consult with other commissioners on “creative collaboration” with other facilities in Bremerton and Silverdale.

Rogers said that would put a strain on those cities’ resources.

“Maybe that means there’s some dedicated space in (OMC),” she said, adding that the facility has its own building capacity restraints.

In addition, “you can’t force someone into treatment,” Rogers added.

“They have a right to say no. They can continue to live on the streets,” she said

“Nothing is simple to fix.”

Jeffers said an additional issue is residents not wanting mental health facilities in their neighborhoods.

“Look at the reality coming from the idea of the (medication-assisted treatment) clinic in Sequim,” Jeffers said.

“It’s all about planning, educating the community, seeing what’s out there.

“Those conversations have to get started.”

Karen Rogers.

Karen Rogers.