A Hard Decision and an Ongoing Mission

Joyce Newmyer is President and CEO of Adventist Health’s Pacific Northwest Region. She spoke to Spectrum about the Walla Walla General Hospital transfer and what the future looks like for the Adventist Health mission in Walla Walla.

Question: Our understanding is this transfer has been in the works for a while now. How long have conversations about a possible transfer been going on?

Answer: The Walla Walla community has been served by two hospital for almost 130 years. Saint Mary’s was here first and then Walla Walla General Hospital (WWGH) started a ministry here in the valley 118 years ago. With the university and several churches, our Adventist roots are very deeply planted in the Walla Walla community. So, this wasn’t in any way an easy decision, but it is one that has spanned years. There were folks I called last Monday to inform them about the decision, and their response was, “wow, this has been decades in the making.”

What are the events that led up to the final decision that this was the right path for WWGH?

I knew how complicated the issues were for WWGH, and those issues were further complicated by a rapidly changing health care industry. Hearing that some people were not at all surprised by the decision was interesting. After much consideration, we became convinced this was the best way to be responsible stewards of precious health care resources. Health care dollars are precious. As competitors, Saint Mary’s and WWGH were continually trying to one up each other in a town that could, in reality, only support one hospital. We were really slugging it out and we competed hard and gave it every best effort and tried many, many business models.

Ten years ago, Saint Mary’s offered to buy WWGH and we declined because we wanted to do our very best to make it work. So, this is not an easy decision or one we came to lightly. We prayed over the decision. We sought council on how to best meet the health needs of this community. We’ve tried in the past to acquire other organizations to help build critical mass, but none of those strategies came to fruition for one reason or another. Finally, we had to admit that this town can support one hospital, not two.

It’s public record that Providence Health has over 75% of the market share here in Walla Walla. Adventist Health has 23%. What kind of a position of strength can we negotiate from? One of our Christian values is stewardship, and that means finding a position that is right for the patients and the employees.

Many have speculated that the transfer is happening to solve the hospital's debt problem, with one report indicating the hospital is currently in the red by $60 million. Would you be willing to respond to these rumors? Do they accurately represent the hospital's current financial state and does debt represent the main reason (or one of the reasons) for the transfer?

We are $68 million under water and it is getting worse every year by the amount of $3 to 5 million per year. We haven’t been able to find a pathway out of that $68 million ditch and this transfer seemed the most responsible use of the resources we have to make sure health care continues to be delivered in a responsible way here in the valley.

As part of the transfer, Providence Health is giving us $14 million over a 24-year period to do something important and to extend the Adventist Health mission. When we’re looking at losses of $3 to 5 million each year, there’s a lot we can’t do, but when we have an annuity of $14 million that can be invested straight into the community, that will allow us to do exciting things. I can’t tell you what exactly that money will be used for yet, but I can tell you it will be used to further the mission of Adventism and Adventist Health. I’m working really hard in conjunction with another organization on plans for this money and look forward to sharing those plans soon.

Will you please describe the process involved in making the decision to transfer control? I assume the governing boards at both Adventist Health and Providence Health must conduct a vote before a decision like this is passed?

Yes, the Board of Trustees for Adventist Health voted just before the letter of intent was signed, and they gave the go ahead on it. These are incredibly smart and very thoughtful people who love the mission of Adventist Health and the Church. This was not easy for them – for any of us. I appreciated their thoughtfulness and the time they took to look at the various models we tried previously, and their recognition that in the end, this was the most responsible course of action.

Catholics and Adventists both have an invested interest in the health of the communities they're in, and both are responsible for some of the largest health systems in the world. How do the Catholic and Adventist health missions align with each other, and how do they differ? How do you see these similarities and differences working together for the Walla Walla community?

I know that one of the most difficult things for readers is that this is a Catholic organization. As a third generation Adventist, I get it. There are certainly differences between the Adventist and Catholic faith traditions, but we serve the same God. We both do what we do because Jesus healed and thus so do we. Catholic hospitals have been doing good work for a really long time and have been doing so in Walla Walla for 130 years. They take delivering consistent care that aligns with Jesus’ ministry very seriously. They already have Adventist patients and employees. They are already well acquainted with many in the Adventist community. Both hospitals care for people of all faiths and have people of all faiths working for them. We’ve all been here working in the same ministry in the same purposes and we will continue to do so now and into the future.

Elaine Couture, the chief executive officer for Providence Health & Services in Eastern Washington, and I have a great deal of respect for each other. She is very respectful of WWGH and the Adventist faith tradition, and she wants to honor those traditions. We both have a very long history of charitable care and trying to do the right thing for each patient. It is painful to think about losing control of an Adventist hospital that has served so many people for so many decades. And it’s a loaded situation when we are losing control to a Catholic organization. But if I had to choose between people of another faith tradition taking control of our hospital or boarding up the doors and shuttering the windows, I would choose relinquishing control to the other organization. It’s quite possible we were headed to closure, but we very actively sought a different solution.

How and when were employees notified of the transfer? Were certain employees made aware that this was a possibility in advance?

The letter of intent was signed on Thursday morning and the following Monday, the regional team and I showed up at WWGH and had conversations with the board and the medical staff, and we held a town hall meeting for the employees. Because we told everyone right away, we didn’t yet have answers to some of their questions, but it was important to us to let them know as soon as we possibly could. We wanted to be respectful and honor their commitment to the hospital.

The official announcement about the transfer mentioned that no immediate staff changes would occur but that reductions may happen in the future. What actions are being taken to ensure as many WWGH employees as possible will remain employed?

This situation is personal for so many. It feels personal to me. My grandmother worked for WWGH in the 1940s, earning 40 cents an hour doing laundry. In the 1950s, she worked in the kitchen. She worked for that hospital and now she’s buried just a short distance away. My aunt and uncle live in Walla Walla. So, this community and this hospital are part of my personal story. But it’s not about me or my family – it’s about all of the families affected. I have a great deal of empathy for an Adventist organization not being an Adventist organization anymore. It’s painful. There’s a sense of loss, of grief. I don’t want to minimize that at all.

One of the most important things we wanted was to ensure employment for as many people as possible, and I believe we have done that. At this point, Providence Health and Adventist Health are still competitors and need to respect all applicable laws which means we can’t jointly plan what the future will look like. But I do know they intend to employ the majority of our people and we’ve tried to be good stewards to our people during the course of this transition.

What does the future look like for the Adventist Health mission in the Walla Walla area?

We intend to continue mission. It will look different. It won’t be bricks and mortar and direct provision of care but it will be loving, caring, and serving this community for decades to come.

What is the key point you want people to know about this transfer?

I hear their concerns. I understand the concerns. I share in the disappointment. I would have preferred we maintain control of the hospital and continue to deliver the care we have for so many years, but it simply wasn’t sustainable. I want people to know we tried every possible business model we could think of and I believe this transfer is the most responsible thing we could do to be good stewards to the community, the employees, and the patients.

Are there any final thoughts or information you'd like to share with our readers about this transfer?

Adventist Health takes very seriously the business we conduct and the mission we fulfill. One of the questions we hear is, “how does the situation with WWGH effect how we deliver care and fulfill our mission in our other hospitals and health-related services (located in California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii)?” Adventist Health is alive and well and we are very much seeking to fulfill our mission that honors the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, and hopefully this will help Him return faster. That is what we want.

This was a hard decision and resulting transaction. My heart hurts for this, but this decision was the right one for the ongoing mission of Adventist Health. To drain resources on something that isn’t going to be a successful business model and subsequently drain our other communities is the wrong thing to do. We have to be responsible in every market we serve in.

Alisa Williams is Managing Editor of SpectrumMagazine.org.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7979

It does appear that if Walla Walla University would choose to do so, students in their Health Sciences would still be able to find many hours of Lab Time in a local hospital setting. Same patients, some of the same staff, just different halls to walk down.
Since it IS Catholic, I am sure they would encourage WWU Students to provide “Jesus Ministry”. The same as was conducted at the SDA hospital. Prayer with patients would NOT be out of order.

Thank you, Ms. Newmyer, for your frank assessment and personal concerns about the situation. I’m sorry if you have had to deal with negative comments. People have incomplete knowledge of the history and constraints associated with what must be many complex organizational and operational issues that have led to the situation. I’m sure they will join others in praying that things work well moving forward.

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Ms Newmyer presents the institutional perspective of these shocking events–that is her work. She is cogent, portrays a wise and inevitable course of action taken by herself and others. Hopefully, Spectrum will fulfill its trusted role and present the “other side” of this major event in PNW SDA history–in the same way it does when discussing “San Antonio” type issues.

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It was with mixed feelings that i read this article, This is a story repeated all over the US, as smaller hospitals affiliate or are swallowed up by larger hospitals. The Adventist Health Services (AHS) basically grew in the same way. The current health care market, with medicare, medicaid and soon the va also, means that a hospital goes big or goes home.

What else is there to do after giving all your best? As in Ecclesiastes 3:6 “a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,”

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