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Hospital in Monroe to seek voter OK of tax increase

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MONROE -- Voters in east Snohomish County are being asked to approve a tax increase that would more than double their annual financial support of Valley General Hospital.
The hospital says it needs the levy increase to continue to provide its current health care services, including emergency room and in-patient hospital care.
The issue will be decided in an April 23 special election. Ballots are being mailed to voters in Monroe, Snohomish, Maltby and the U.S. 2 towns of Sultan, Gold Bar and Index.
Voters will decide whether to approve increasing the hospital's tax from 14 cents to 37 cents for each $1,000 of assessed property valuation.
Eric Jensen, the hospital's chief executive, said he considers it a modest increase when penciled out for what typical homeowner would pay.
A homeowner would pay $46 more or a total of $74 a year for property valued at $200,000.
The increased tax rate would bring in an additional $2.4 million at a hospital where financial losses hit about $4.5 million last year.
"What the levy is really about … is maintaining a full service hospital here in Monroe," Jensen said. That includes an emergency room providing trauma, cardiac and stroke care 24 hours a day.
If the tax increase isn't approved, there will be cuts in essential services, Jensen said.
The cuts would affect every area of the hospital, he said, and could mean closing in-patient services.
Patients who were treated at the hospital's emergency room and needed to be hospitalized probably would be sent to hospitals 30 to 45 minutes away in Everett or Kirkland, Jensen said.
The emergency room itself could be at stake, Jensen said. The cost of running the hospital's emergency department is about $2.6 million a year, or roughly 6.5 percent of the hospital's $40 million budget.
In a cost-cutting move in 2011, the hospital stopped offering infant delivery services.
Last year, Valley General approved a business affiliation with EvergreenHealth in Kirkland.
A community group, Save Our Hospital, has worked to support the levy increase though public meetings and with information posted on Facebook and an website.
Eric DeBelly, secretary of that group, said that the hospital's affiliation with Evergreen will allow more medical services to be provided in the Monroe area.
But the agreement doesn't call for Evergreen to provide more money to Valley General, he said. "So we're on our own in trying to cinch up the operational costs that the hospital incurs right now."
The closing of the birthing center is just one example of important services that can be lost, he said. "I just don't want to see us lose any services."
Valley General has struggled financially for years, in part because of the large number of patients it treats who don't have health insurance or who are Medicaid patients, a federal-state health care program which typically pays hospitals, clinics and physicians far less than the full costs of providing medical care.
It's been able to continue to provide medical services by drawing down its financial reserves, Jensen said.
Last year, the hospital had $2.1 million in costs for people without insurance and another $5.7 million in unpaid patient medical bills.
The hospital has taken a number of steps to cut costs this year. Earlier this year, the hospital's two unions agreed to one-year wage freezes and some reduction in benefits. Non-union employees agreed to furloughs. These two steps are expected to save the hospital $1.8 million this year.
The goal is for Valley General to break even financially by the end of this year, Jensen said.
"We're at the point where we need the financial support from the community for this tax increase," Jensen said. "Once you lose a full service hospital, it's very hard to get it back."
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486,
Story tags » TaxesValley General HospitalLocal elections

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