Survey says: tax hike for ER OK

Saint Louise Regional Hospital

Some Gilroy voters said they’re supportive of a sales tax increase to benefit Saint Louise Hospital, according to a recent phone survey the private hospital commissioned; however – the tax is more attractive if it were paired with funding education, fire services, police officers or services for the elderly.

After surveying approximately 500 registered voters in Gilroy by phone in the last weeks of December 2011, “results indicate support for a sales tax increase among likely November 2012 voters,” wrote Saint Louise spokeswoman Jasmine Nguyen via email Wednesday.

In early January, Nguyen said the poll results were being tabulated and would be “shared with community leaders” in two weeks.

“This year is shaping up to potentially have several statewide ballot measures affecting taxes and the funding of essential services,” she said Wednesday. “This is a topic we are all interested in.”

When asked about the potential of a “general purpose” sales tax increase measure ranging between one-half to one-fourth percent, 61 percent of “likely November 2012 voters” expressed support, according to Nguyen.

Polling comes on the heels of an exponentially growing need for emergency medical services at Saint Louise, Nguyen explained.

The hospital is searching for a means to expand its emergency room; a project Nguyen said will cost $25 to $30 million.

Having received “three times the national average” number of patients requiring emergency medical services in 2011 for a facility of its size, Nguyen explained in January the hospital needs “explore all avenues to help meet the community needs for more emergency service capacity.”

If a tax proposal is formulated and eventually brought before Gilroy City Council, Councilman Perry Woodward said the idea could be “dead on arrival.”

“Why should people who shop in Gilroy and local merchants be footing the bill for the entire area?” he questioned.

Most Kaiser Permanente insurance holders he knows visit the ER at Santa Teresa Kaiser Hospital in San Jose, Woodward added.

“I don’t think that it would be something the voters would support,” he said over the phone Thursday.

Saint Louise is a privately owned hospital that does not turn anyone away based on inability to pay. It is owned and run by the Daughters of Charity, a regional healthcare system in California. Saint Louise is the only emergency room in South County; the next closest being Hazel Hawkins in Hollister, Valley Medical Center and Santa Teresa Kaiser Hospital (both in San Jose).

“Last year, we saw over 26,000 patients in our emergency room, three times the national average for a hospital our size,” Nguyen wrote in January of Saint Louise, which has 93 licensed beds in the entire hospital.

When the phone survey was conducted in December, voters were asked about a “variety of city services and hospital improvements that the funds could be spent on,” Nguyen wrote.

Marrying the potential hospital tax with other services in Gilroy proved to be a more attractive option, according to 66 percent of those who responded.

Voters were asked what would make them supportive of a sales tax increase, then given a list of options. According to Nguyen, 66 percent or more of the respondents said they would be in favor of sales taxes that helps maintain preschool, after-school and library programs for children and teens; fire services; neighborhood police patrols; senior services and programs; providing state-of-the-art medical technology for patients in need of emergency care; expanding cardiac services and emergency cardiac care for heart attack victims; and expanding/improving emergency services.

When asked via email the geographic boundaries of where the sales tax initiative would potentially apply (Gilroy? Morgan Hill? San Martin?) Nguyen stated the poll was only directed toward Gilroy voters.

Nguyen reiterated there is no proposal at this time regarding the specifics of a possible sales tax measure, i.e., how much it would be.

“Ultimately, any ballot measure in Gilroy would have to be supported, developed and placed on the ballot by the City Council,” she explained. “This will be the City’s decision.”

City Councilman Bob Dillon said he heard about the polls conducted by Saint Louise. Chances of passing a new sales tax – which would require two-thirds approval by voters – are pretty slim, in his opinion.

“I don’t think the community would be open to it, and I wouldn’t vote for it myself,” Dillon said. “It’s a private hospital. It should be funded privately.”

Nguyen – who said in January poll results would be made available in two weeks – wrote via email Wednesday, “the results of the poll have not yet been fully reviewed by management here. (We) want to fully review the results of our survey so that we can fully understand them and are prepared to answer any questions the community might have when they are released.”

Nguyen said the poll results will be shared with the Dispatch, City Council, local service organizations and via a press release on Saint Louise’s website. Nguyen said she does not know when the results will be made public.

Emergency Room Registrar Kristi Murillo, who has worked at Saint Louise for seven years, said hospital staff is also in the dark regarding the poll results. They’re waiting to hear from Saint Louise CEO Joanne Allen, who did not return phone calls as of press time.

Allen recently sent a staff-wide email saying she plans to visit each hospital department when the poll results are released “to share the results and explain what’s going on,” according to Murillo.

Murillo said there’s no question Saint Louise needs to revamp its ER facility. With an average of 80 to 90 visitors in any given 24-hour time period, the existing eight ER rooms aren’t cutting it.

“Oh my gosh, yes – it’s in need of expansion. The reason is because the community has grown, and we need more rooms to accommodate the amount of patient flow,” Murillo explained. “The waiting area is not that big. Lines will overflow into the hallways.”

She doesn’t agree with asking taxpayer citizens to foot the bill, however.

“My personal opinion is that the public or the city should not be paying for a private entity,” Murillo said. “This is a private hospital run by the Daughters of Charity. It’s not a county hospital. I don’t think the public is responsible for expanding the ER.”

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.

Per Saint Louise’s policy, the hospital turns no one away. After a patient is cared for, a financial adviser will work with that patient if he/she is uninsured. By law, Saint Louise must treat patients before discussing payment options.

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

In January, Murillo said hospital staffers are aware that the not-for-profit medical center – which employs 766 people – is struggling financially. She 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.

Nguyen, however, reiterated in January – and again via email Wednesday, “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.”

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