Sales tax to help fund Saint Louise Hospital?

Members of the SEIU United Healthcare Workers union strike for a

Saint Louise Regional Hospital is exploring the option of placing a sales tax initiative on the November ballot.

Having received “three times the national average” number of patients requiring emergency medical services in 2011 for a facility of its size, Saint Louise spokeswoman Jasmine Nguyen confirmed the hospital began polling voters in early December. She cited the need “to explore all avenues to help meet the community needs for more emergency service capacity.”

“We know there are a lot of different measures heading for the ballot in the coming year,” she wrote in a statement to the Dispatch Thursday morning. “We just want to help explore all options and the community’s opinions and attitudes.”

The poll results are being tabulated and will be shared with community leaders in about two weeks, Nguyen said.

Gilroyan Alan Viarengo said he received a phone call from a pollster in December asking if “I would support a half-a-percentage-point tax hike to fund local medical needs.” This would raise the local sales tax from 8.25 percent to about 8.75 percent.

Nguyen, however, reiterated this “is not accurate.”

“There is no anticipation of amounts,” she continued. “It is not up to us. This is a community decision. We are just helping to explore options for the whole range of community needs.”

When asked via email the geographic boundaries where a sales tax initiative would potentially apply – presumably Gilroy, Morgan Hill, San Martin and surrounding unincorporated areas – Nguyen did not respond as of press time. She wrote that the hospital is on firm financial footing, but she did not provide particulars surrounding the hospital’s budget scenario.

“Last year, we saw over 26,000 patients in our emergency room, three times the national average for a hospital our size,” she wrote of Saint Louise, which has 93 licensed beds. “The hospital is solid financially, but we are not in a position to pay the whole cost for the expanded services that the community needs on our own.” 

One hospital employee said she was unaware that Saint Louise was polling voters.

“You think we would know about that. I’m shocked,” said Emergency Room Registrar Kristi Murillo, who has worked at Saint Louise for seven years. “No one has said anything.”

Murillo, however, said staffers are aware that the not-for-profit medical center – which opened in 1989 and employs 766 people – is struggling financially. Murillo referred to recent layoffs; the changing of full-time, benefited positions to part-time positions with no benefits; downsizing some shifts from 12 hours to eight hours; and “flexing,” or, requiring ER staff to take unpaid days off.

When it’s slow, nurses with lower seniority are also sent home, she said.

“All I hear is that we don’t have any money, and that they want to expand the ER … it has been like that for a while,” Murillo said Wednesday. “(Staff) talks about it all the time. It’s because of a lack of reimbursement from Medicare and MediCal. There’s a lot of people with no insurance.”

Per Saint Louise’s policy, the hospital turns no one away. After a patient is cared for, a financial advisor will work with that patient if he/she is uninsured.

During her shift last weekend, Murillo said she saw an unusually high number – 22 uninsured patients – come through the ER.

In her department specifically, she said Saint Louise began collecting co-pays from uninsured patients about two years ago. By law, Murillo explained Saint Louise must treat patients before discussing payment options.

“We never used to ask for ER co-pay, or for services that were non-emergency, but now they push that like crazy,” she said.

Murillo said she would not be in favor of a sales tax hike; something she said isn’t fair or necessary.

“I don’t think the hospital needs that,” she explained. “I think even if they got the tax, it wouldn’t benefit any of us.”

Murillo said she heard it would take an upwards of $20 million to expand the ER.

Dennis Kennedy, on the other hand, who served as Morgan Hill’s mayor for 12 years beginning in 1994, underscored the fact that operating expenses have to come from somewhere.

When Catholic Healthcare West – the largest hospital system in California – relocated Saint Louise from Morgan Hill to Gilroy in 1999, Kennedy was an advocate for keeping Saint Louise in its original location. Had this been the case, he said, the hospital may have been better off.

“I think things would have been different if the only facility were in Morgan Hill,” he said Thursday. “A lot of Morgan Hill residents have moved from San Jose to Morgan Hill, but retain their medical services in San Jose.”

Saint Louise originally opened in 1989 as Saint Louise Hospital just south of Cochrane Road in Morgan Hill. It competed with South Valley Hospital in Gilroy; now the current location of Saint Louise.

Saint Louise is a member of the Daughters of Charity Health System; “a regional health care system of six hospitals spanning the California coast from the San Francisco Bay Area to Los Angeles,” according to the organization’s website. It is sponsored by the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, who have been serving the sick and impoverished for 375 years through healing ministries worldwide.

“During these times, when we rely on our hospitals to take care of the indigents, often times for many it’s the only source of medical care that they have,” Kennedy pointed out. “So it makes sense to me that if we’re going to expect the hospital to take care of those in need who don’t have financial resources to take care of themselves, somehow a public source of funding would help. It would be a good thing to do.”

Joanne Allen, president and chief executive officer of Saint Louise, would not return calls for direct comment.

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