The one remaining hospital, Yakima Valley Memorial, had its own financial challenges and gaps in services, forcing some Central Washington residents to drive more than an hour to the next closest hospital, in the Tri-Cities area, and others to drive hours to access Puget Sound healthcare.
The lack of services was especially an issue for low-income residents without the means to travel for specialist care, said Dave Hargreaves, chair of Memorial’s board of directors.
That could be about to change. MultiCare Health System, based in Tacoma, completed its purchase of the 226-bed Yakima Valley Memorial in mid-January. Officials say they plan to pump much-needed capital into the hospital, including bringing back medical procedures and services over the coming months and years.
“We do think that there’s a fairly complete range of services … that can be available in this community,” said MultiCare President and CEO Bill Robertson in an interview with Crosscut. “And they have been in this community in the past.”
This is the second time the formerly independent nonprofit hospital has been affiliated with a larger healthcare system. From 2016 to 2020, the hospital was under Seattle-based Virginia Mason. But in November 2020, the hospital’s board of directors voted to unwind its affiliation after Virginia Mason itself agreed to be acquired by another larger hospital system.
While the affiliation with Virginia Mason provided benefits such as improvements in governance and an association with an organization with a national reputation for high-quality service, Hargreaves said the board ultimately found it wasn’t quite the right fit. That proved especially true after Virginia Mason merged with CHI Franciscan in Tacoma in 2021, which made Virginia Mason’s hospitals part of Chicago-based CommonSpirit Health.
“Yakima, Washington, is just not going to be on top of their mind,” Hargreaves said.
For MultiCare, the acquisition marks the nonprofit's first hospital in Central Washington. Previously, its presence outside Western Washington was limited to the Spokane area.
The acquisition comes after MultiCare has cultivated several vital relationships in the Yakima Valley in recent years, including a long-term partnership with Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, a private medical school in Yakima.
Shared local mission
The hospital that is now MultiCare Yakima Memorial Hospital opened in 1950, a product of several years of citizen advocacy for a second hospital in the Yakima area.
Memorial grew considerably over several decades, with several expansions that brought additional services and providers to the region, including Children’s Village, a facility that provides services for children with developmental disabilities, and the Cottage in the Meadow, a hospice facility.
Memorial was a steady presence as the region’s other hospital went through several ownership and name changes over two decades. Its final owner, nonprofit Astria Health, operated Astria Regional Medical Center for just over two years before closing in January 2020.
Astria Health and MultiCare crossed paths in late 2020 when the latter agreed to provide a $75 million loan to help the organization, which ran two smaller hospitals in Toppenish and Sunnyside, emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
While Memorial fared far better than the shuttered Astria Regional Medical Center, Memorial was experiencing the same challenges and issues, including a lot of Medicare and Medicaid users whose public insurance failed to cover costs.
Its finances became even more dependent on government insurance as reduced services sent more patients with traditional insurance or other financial means driving elsewhere for care. In addition, when the hospital was under Virginia Mason, patients were often referred for care to the organization’s other facilities in the Seattle area.
Still, while Virginia Mason wasn’t quite a fit, it was clear that Memorial needed to find a partner to help it remain sustainable financially.
Hargreaves said board members and hospital staff observed MultiCare’s other hospital acquisitions and were drawn to the organization’s desire to boost local care in the community rather than use the smaller hospital as a referral center for a larger or more prominent facility.
He also felt the organization might listen more to local stakeholders.
“I feel I could pick up the phone anytime and call the CEO,” he said.
Another person who felt comfortable calling MultiCare’s CEO was Michael Lawler, president of Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences.
The osteopathic medical school forged a long-term partnership with MultiCare in 2019 that provided students with opportunities to complete required rotations and clinicals at MultiCare facilities. MultiCare providers and staff also guided classroom instruction.
Memorial has been a key partner for the school since well before it opened in 2008, Lawler said, and several Memorial providers have served as instructors.
MultiCare’s acquisition of Memorial would further strengthen the existing partnership and provide additional opportunities, he said. “They’re committed to building [health care] capacity. Part of building the capacity is helping us in training health care providers.”
In announcing its acquisition last month, Multicare revealed plans to invest more than $100 million in Memorial over the next several years. Much of that investment will fund a new electronic health record system scheduled to go live in early 2024. Additional money will go toward increasing services, including a new off-campus emergency department to alleviate volume in the hospital emergency room and a new cardiac catheterization lab.
For Robertson, the MultiCare CEO, such investments are essential to stabilize the hospital and make it more attractive to prospective providers. And increasing providers will be vital in improving existing services, such as oncology, and bringing back care that left the area over time, such as specialized surgery services.
“We think the secret sauce is going to be building a stable delivery platform [of care] that the clinicians have confidence in,” he said.
Robertson said the long-term goal is to restore lost services in a variety of ways and make Yakima a destination for those seeking care.
“What we want to create in Central Washington is a destination healthcare ecosystem that serves even more broadly than the Yakima Valley,” he said. “[Where] people will come here because we have good cardiac and vascular surgery. Because we have a great oncology program. Because there are neuroscience services.”