Lack of reproduction, death choices a concern

Group wants Kitsap to have more health care alternatives

A local organization is concerned about problems in health care related to reproduction and death.

Save Secular Healthcare members say reproductive care — such as abortions and vasectomies — and end-of-life care — such as “do not resuscitate” directives — are getting harder to obtain because many healthcare institutions are owned by religious organizations.

Susan Brooks-Young of Bremerton, a co-founder of the Puget Sound group, helped start the organization two years ago in fall of 2020. Their mission is to fight monopolies that threaten people’s health and limit their treatment options. They are working with state and federal lawmakers to pass laws that make health care affordable and available to all.

Group members became concerned about the dominance of Catholic-owned healthcare systems, such as St. Michael Medical Center in Silverdale. “Over half in the state are Catholic,” said Wendy Jones, a group member.

Brooks-Young added: “They would not honor end-of-life directives. Since 50 percent of people in Washington believe in death with dignity people should have access to it.”

Carolyn Zimmer of North Kitsap Indivisible noted that about “70 percent of hospice care in the county” is Catholic.

Brooks-Young said many patients go to hospitals and don’t even know their limitations of service. So Save Secular Healthcare is working to educate the public and also eliminate monopolies in healthcare mergers. “We have inclusion, respect and fairness in all of our actions,” she said.

She went on to say St. Michael plays a very important role in Kitsap County.

She added: “It’s not our goal to put St. Michael out of business. That’s absurd. It’s the only hospital we’ve got; we want it to be successful. But there has to be alternatives.”

Brooks-Young said problems developed when Catholic facilities received directives from their bishops in 2018. Prior to that, their institutions had a “wink-wink, nod-nod” use of loopholes to use procedures that officially were banned, she said. For example, she shared that a facility in the Midwest had a separate operating room for such procedures.

That’s not the case anymore. One exception is the Catholic hospital in Edmonds because it’s part of a public hospital district. It would lose its lease and access to federal money if it did not offer reproductive services, Zimmer said.

Jones said a long-term solution could be more public hospital districts, but what about “here and now? That’s what’s scary.”

Pilot alliance

Recent problems at St. Michael have been well-documented: Long wait times at the emergency room, lack of staffing and many others. So a year ago a pilot Alliance for Equitable Healthcare associated with Save Secular Healthcare started with a focus on Kitsap County.

There are many problems they are looking into. For years there has been a lack of nursing instructors because they can make more in the field. As a result, there are a lack of students learning the profession locally.

Pam Keeley, a lead for the alliance, said if there were more urgent care clinics so many people would not have to go to the Emergency Department at St. Michael, which have led to overcrowding.

“Where is Governor (Jay) Inslee?” asked Keeley, a registered nurse for 50 years. “This is his home county (Kitsap). State government needs to update Growth Management Act to include healthcare resources to keep up with growth in the county — like transportation, land use, education, et al.”

With all of the growth being planned, healthcare needs to be in the discussion. “Shouldn’t there be a temporary moratorium on development until we at least get some patches?” Keeley asked.

Not just religion

Brooks-Young said they would be concerned about St. Michael even if it was a secular hospital. “They are a mess,” she said, adding there were 39 concerns listed in their accreditation process.

“Accreditation is everything,” Jones said. “Without it you are a closed hospital, lose Medicare funds, lose patients.”

Jones wonders how the county can recruit healthcare professionals when St. Michael has such a bad reputation.

Zimmer said RNs go elsewhere because of the culture at the hospital, and it got even worse during COVID. The hospital had to hire travel nurses, who are very expensive. Then they quit hiring them, and the nurse shortage caused more problems.

Jones said St. Michael responds by saying their nurses are the highest paid in the state. “Money’s not everything,” she said, adding because of too much work some RNs fear losing their license if something bad happens.

St. Michael response

Chad Melton, president of St. Michael, has spoken publicly to the county commissioners and at a community meeting about the problems — many of which are nationwide issues.

He said lack of staff is a problem everywhere, and that St. Michael is working on recruiting and retaining more nurses. He said that can be a challenge because Kitsap is so isolated. He said nursing education needs to be improved and increased in Kitsap because nurses developed here are more likely to stay here.

Melton said the legislature could help by making an effort to bring more doctors to the state. And, some changes in regulations also could help. “We have patients in beds that don’t need to be there.”

Other issues include patients staying in the hospital two days longer than Medicare says they should, and patients on the third floor are parents whose families no longer want to care for them. “It’s the right thing for us to do,” Melton said. “We can’t kick them out.”

State legislation

Save Secular Healthcare has helped to pass some laws already and is working on others.

Zimmer said one law that passed requires better care for women when they have a miscarriage. Another law that passed happened because the underserved were not receiving enough charity help in Kitsap County.

Brooks-Young said one that’s passed the House twice but not the Senate would allow access to death with dignity. Another bill coming up would take a serious look at mergers to prevent monopolies. “We’re a poster child” for that problem, Zimmer said.

The onerous tax structure also is a problem, she said. Sales taxes hit the most vulnerable the hardest. But we “don’t have another way to generate income,” she said, so they are putting forward efforts for tax equity.

“It’s a finger in the dike approach,” Brooks-Young said of the legislative bandages.

The old days

Jones said when Harrison hospital in Bremerton sold out to a larger corporation problems started. There were talks of the need for a hospital in Silverdale because that was where growth was occurring. “It was never an affiliation,” she said. “It was a takeover from day one.”

Jones worked at Harrison for years and said it had a good reputation. “We were a small cozy community hospital that took care of our neighbors,” she said.

While she left to go to Kaiser Permanente before the merger she was troubled by their diminishing reputation. Patients would be called for not paying their bill. “When you are in the throes of a health care crisis” you shouldn’t be bugged about your bill over and over, she said. “With the merger we lost our community feel,” she said, adding some work began being outsourced.

Zimmer said it was easy for a Catholic organization to take over health care in Kitsap. “We were ripe for it,” since there is just one hospital, she said.

With all of the problems at St. Michael, Jones said the community has lost confidence in it. “People are really upset about wait times,” she said, adding a nurse actually once called 911 for help. “That’s beyond my comprehension that it got that bad. Nurses are incredibly stressed.”

Jones concluded, “If I had chest pain I’d be scared to go to St. Michael.”