The sky has not fallen onTuolumne County health care
Two months have passed and the world at least the health care world of Tuolumne County has not ended.
Amid great concern and sadness, Tuolumne General Hospital (TGH) closed its doors, after a century and a half of operation on June 30. Only long term care and psychiatric care continue at what is called Tuolumne General Medical Facility. It was no fun: Scores of staff members lost their jobs and thousands of loyal TGH patients were forced to look elsewhere for care.
But what has not happened is significant:
? Sonora Regional Medical Center (SRMC), where virtually all of the county hospital's displaced patients have gone, has not been overwhelmed: SRMC emergency room patients, although some exceptions have been reported, don't routinely wait many hours to be seen by a doctor.
Neither have those needing inpatient care been turned away for lack of beds. Nor have any patients been transferred to other hospitals for insurance or other non-health reasons.
? Finding new jobs has not been a major problem for most of the 140 TGH employees who lost their jobs on July 1: 17 are still looking for work. The rest have found jobs with SRMC, other Tuolumne County departments, private businesses or government agencies. Five have retired and two have moved from the county.
And more and more of the remaining 17, said County Administrator Craig Pedro, will find work as time goes on.
None of this is to say that the transition has been seamless, that everybody at TGH ended up with better jobs or that health care in Tuolumne County is somehow improved with just one hospital.
The switchover to a single provider has not been without glitches and marathon emergency room (ER) waits and backlogged laboratories have been reported in Letters the Editor. And being forced out of a job, even if half-decent employment is found in short order, is never enjoyable.
Finally, the county was clearly better off with the extra beds, doctors, nurses, clinics and labs that two hospitals afforded. Trouble is, we couldn't afford it.
In the past decade the money-losing county hospital was propped up by more than $40 million in general fund subsidies and loans. And last fiscal year, with red ink creeping toward the $9 million mark, other departments were each asked to cut spending by 7.5 percent.
Fewer deputies, shorter office hours, less road maintenance and service cuts in many other areas became the price we were paying to keep TGH open. After a series of ,at times, agonizing public hearings, county supervisors did the inevitable and the necessary: They voted to close the hospital.
The move didn't come without apocalyptic warnings from some of TGH's more ardent and emotional supporters: The overrun Sonora Regional Medical Center ER would go to gridlock, with waits ranging from several hours to the better part of a day. Beds would become scarce, and needy patients would be told to go elsewhere.
The sky, however, has not fallen. Close cooperation between Tuolumne County and SRMC has helped TGH workers find jobs without leaving the area and has kept impacts on Sonora's lone remaining hospital manageable.
Take the ER, where forecasts first called for a patient increase of up to 50 percent: Thanks, in part, to the opening of a new Prompt Care center on Sonora's Forest Road, the hike at the Medical Center's own ER is a far more modest 20 percent.
And all those patients that closure critics said would be transferred out of SRMC? Hospital spokeswoman Gail Witzlsteiner said not one has been moved for non-medical reasons since July 1. And there's always been room at the inn: In two months, she said, not a single patient has been denied admittance.
The future of TGH was for years a divisive issue. But now that the dust has settled, both sides can can take solace in that the consequences of closure are not nearly so bad as some had feared.
Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.