The positive impact the Visiting Nurse Association and Hospice of the Sierra have had on their Tuolumne County constituents is unique and powerful.
VNA nurses each year visit thousands of patients, most recovering from injury, surgery or both, and all in need of home care during recovery. And the Hospice staff helps hundreds more terminally ill patients and their families find peace during those final days.
Not only is VNA-Hospice a valuable community asset, it has inspired strong loyalty and allegiance from those it has helped. Which explains why the county decision to turn the 29-year-old program over to a private operator is so emotionally charged.
“Are they insane?” one writer asked in a recent letter to the editor. “Or have they not had a loved one who required the services of Hospice or the tender loving care that VNA gives patients?”
Another charged that the county was “selling seniors down the river.”
“We need to keep our VNA-Hospice program,” urged a third writer.
Despite those sentiments, Tuolumne County will further remove itself from the health care business and follow through on plans to turn the program over to a private operator. The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last week to begin negotiations with Sonora Regional Medical Center for assumption of VNA-Hospice.
The decision was inevitable: For the county, this compassionate, necessary program is a money loser. Estimates were that $400,000 in general fund cash would be needed to keep VNA-Hospice afloat over the coming fiscal year.
Facing the toughest budget year in decades, the county can ill-afford to keep providing the services. And it is not alone in opting out: Tuolumne County Human Services Director Ann Connolly said only about 3 percent of such programs statewide are run by public agencies.
The good news is that Sonora Regional is not only willing to take over VNA-Hospice, but pledges to do so with few changes.
“I am confident that we have the capabilities to provide world-class hospice care,” Sonora Regional Administrator Jeff Eller told the board.
A key audience priority at last week’s hearing was that as much of the current staff as possible survive the transition. The equivalent of about 30 full-time employees with benefits now work for the program.
The concern is justified: Dedicated, hard-working employees are a key reason VNA-Hospice has been as successful as it has.
“Please take care of our staff,” pleaded Supervisor Teri Murrison during last week’s hearing.
Eller said all present employees will be interviewed, with a priority given to finding jobs for those who have worked for the programs the longest.
Indeed, the programs’ valued staff should be a key issue during upcoming negotiations.
That said, Sonora Regional has the resources, the cash and the community commitment to effectively operate VNA-Hospice. Adventist Health took over Sonora Community Hospital in 1961 and in 2004 engineered the transition to the much larger medical center on Greenley Road. It has a staff of hundreds and a budget of millions.
VNA-Hospice, with roots going back to 1980, has itself shown remarkable staying power. VNA was founded as a nonprofit organization 29 years ago and soon afterward began a hospice program. The joined programs became part of Tuolumne General Hospital in 1996, then became a separate county department in 2003.
Through it all, however, the programs have succeeded.
A key testimony to this are the hundreds of county residents who have paid tribute to VNA-Hospice with bequests in their wills and with requests that mourners give to a program whose benefits will span generations rather than buy flowers that will soon wilt.
VNA-Hospice is a unique and invaluable community asset and should be treated as such during talks on its future.