Hospital District Election Shows Democracy Works

November 8, 2015 by islandersvoice1

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Hospital District Election Shows Democracy Works by Steve Wehrly

The just-completed Hospital District Commission election on San Juan Island was, in my view, one of the most important, and most interesting, elections in the state this year.

Important issues of statewide significance included the application of the Catholic bishops’ religious directives to health care services provided (or not provided) by Peace Island Medical Center, a Catholic hospital in Friday Harbor owned by Peace Health.

Matters related to the religious directives and to provision of public tax funds to a Catholic hospital have been raised over the past several years by Monica Harrington, one of the successful Hospital Commission candidates.

Harrington and the other two newly-elected Commissioners (Barbara Sharp and Bill Williams) were jointly supported as an informal “ticket” by a committee of local voters. Their expressed concerns included whether the current contract between the Hospital District and Peace Health needs adjustment, especially regarding women’s health care services, end-of-life counseling and services, and emergency and urgent care services for both insured and uninsured local residents.

The three open positions (a majority of the five-member commission) drew three other credible and well-known local residents, Jenny Ledford (v. Harrington), Bill Hancock (v. Williams), and Michelle Loftus (v. Sharp).

All six candidates waged vigorous campaigns. Three community forums, campaign websites, several mailings, yard signs, telephone banks, home coffee klatsches, and even lids for pet food cans, generated significant local publicity and interest.

The decisive issue seemed to this writer to be whether a candidate supported current policies and operations at Peace Island Medical Center, which was basically the position taken by Ledford, Hancock and Loftus, or whether a candidate believed the Hospital Commission should exercise its oversight authority to encourage changes to hospital policies and operations, as expressed by Harrington, Williams and Sharp.

Interestingly, Ledford, Hancock and Loftus were in part supported by Peace Island Medical Center’s board members and executives, and Ledford’s public relations firm was Wilson Strategic, a health care PR firm that has worked for Peace Health, the hospital’s owner. Also, Loftus had been chair of the local Republican Party organization.

An important election subtext was the question of endorsements. Harrington, Williams and Sharp were endorsed by Planned Parenthood, and Harrington and Williams were endorsed by the local Democratic Party organization. The local Republican Party organization made no endorsements, although Harrington and Williams asked the Republican Party to consider endorsing them.

About 3,000 voters cast ballots for Hospital Commission candidates – very close to the number of votes cast in the 2013 Hospital District election.

Letters to the editor for both the Journal and the Islander were divided in their support for all six candidates. The Journal of the San Juans and the San Juan Islander both endorsed Harrington, Williams and Sharp.

Were these endorsements decisive? In my view, endorsements from newspapers and political parties are never decisive, and conservatives or Republican Party supported candidates have won elections in San Juan County. However, the vote percentages for Harrington, Williams, and Sharp (58, 60 and 62 percent of the vote, respectively) were consistent with San Juan County approval percentages for the Reproductive Privacy Act initiative, the Death with Dignity initiative, and the marijuana legalization initiative.

This was electorate that was interested, informed and educated. It was democracy operating at its best.

It was an election that confirmed the best aspects of Tip O’Neill’s well-worn aphorism: All Politics is Local. As it should be.

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