St. Joseph: No guarantee for Fortuna hospital staffing levels

Estelle Fennell sends urgent letter to state before board discussion

Roberta Luskin-Hawk, chief executive of St. Joseph Hospital, said Tuesday she is committed to keeping local hospitals fully staffed, but declined to promise keeping women and children’s services staff on site at Redwood Memorial in Fortuna. (Times-Standard file)
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The chief executive for St. Joseph Health in Humboldt County declined Tuesday to provide assurances to the county Board of Supervisors that physicians specializing in health care for women and children will remain on staff past mid-2021 at Redwood Memorial Hospital in Fortuna.

Roberta Luskin-Hawk, the CEO of St. Joseph in Eureka, spoke at the board’s Tuesday meeting about ongoing “mistrust” of the hospital’s intentions, calling it “hurtful” and insisting there’s little truth to concerns that the hospital will shortchange the availability of pediatrics and obstetrics staff to Eel River Valley residents.

However, citing a recent lack of willing on-call physicians, Luskin-Hawk declined to confirm if women and children’s services staff will remain onsite at Redwood Memorial past June 2021 — the expiration date of a state mandate added to the 2016 health care merger of Providence and St. Joseph.

“It’s not in the best interests of moms and babies to say, ‘We’re going to continue no matter what,’ ” Luskin-Hawk said, though she added that St. Joseph will continue to send temporary personnel to Fortuna as needed.

Luskin-Hawk also warned that stationing volunteer physicians, instead of full-time staff, at Redwood Memorial could threaten quality of care for expecting mothers and their children, and suggested that residents would be better off driving “another 20 minutes” to St. Joe’s in Eureka.

Her comments followed recent concerns from officials about long-term staffing at Redwood Memorial.

Fennell sends letter to attorney general

The latest local voice belongs to 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell. Ahead of a Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Fennell authored and sent a letter to state Attorney General Xavier Becerra supporting continued pediatrics and obstetrics staff in the Eel River Valley.

In her letter, Fennell warns that Redwood Memorial “faces an immediate threat of losing” women and children’s services.

Other supervisors said at Tuesday’s meeting that some of Fennell’s wording was too strong. They advocated adding more diplomatic language before they could authorize the letter, but soon realized it was too late — Fennell had already sent the letter to Becerra’s office before the meeting.

“A copy is already on its way,” Fennell said as 1st District Supervisor Rex Bohn sank his face into his hands. It was her mistake, Fennell added, to assume that the other supervisors would support pediatrics and OB-GYN staffing.

Redwood Memorial Hospital in Fortuna is operated by the Providence-St. Joseph health care system. (Google Maps)

In response, 4th District Supervisor Virginia Bass said she and other supervisors agree that hospital staff needs support, but disagreed that the current version of the letter was optimal. Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson similarly questioned whether Fennell’s wording was the correct strategic move.

As a compromise, the board agreed to send a new letter by next week to Becerra’s office, clarifying the county’s position.

Health care officials strike back

Faced with the possibility that Humboldt County would make a strong statement to the state regarding local hospital staffing, health officials on Tuesday urged the supervisors to get on the same page as hospital management.

“I don’t want to go back to the days where we just throw hate missiles at each other because we’re concerned,” said Connie Stewart, executive director of Humboldt State University’s California Center for Rural Policy.

Luskin-Hawk, meanwhile, maintained that St. Joseph is doing its part to staff the hospitals, including by hiring two new physicians to Redwood Memorial. She also cited a mammography technician’s personal emergency as reason for the Fortuna hospital operating with limited mammography services.

The technician’s absence was among a list of concerns raised by Redwood Memorial chief of staff Donald Baird, whose own letter to the state was approved last week by the Fortuna City Council.

“It’s hurtful that there’s questions out there about our commitment to the community,” the executive told the board.

Some supervisors were supportive. Bohn, who said he has family members employed at local hospitals, praised St. Joseph for increasing the number of residency applicants between last year and this one.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Madrone similarly praised Luskin-Hawk’s willingness to communicate, but noted that she hadn’t fully committed to stationing full-time staff for women and children’s services at Redwood Memorial. He also responded to the executive’s mention of the driving time between Fortuna and Eureka.

“I know it’s only 20 minutes or so,” Madrone said, “but 20 minutes in certain situations still can mean a life.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504. 

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