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Ashlanders to ask council for assurances in hospital deal

Some Ashland residents want the city to retain decision-making authority and establish other employee and patient guarantees before voting on the proposed merger between Ashland Community Hospital and San Francisco-based Dignity Health.

"We're pretty realistic in thinking that they (ACH) are not going to drop Dignity and start over," said Ashland resident Suzanne Marshall, who co-wrote a three-point resolution she and others hope the City Council will consider tonight.

"We just want a document that guarantees none of these employees' jobs will be lost, their benefits will still be there ... we will have a hospital in the future and that Dignity will abide by Oregon law."

The resolution, co-written by Ashland residents Diana Spade and Valerie Muroki, asks the council to maintain the authority to approve the sale or closure of the hospital in the future.

The resolution also calls for no staffing reductions, layoffs or reductions in pay, hours or benefits over the next five years, and for Dignity Health to honor the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.

If the merger is approved, Ashland will give up its sole corporate membership interest in ACH, which currently allows it to approve sale, sublease, merger or consolidation of ACH assets with any affiliation partner. The city will retain ownership of the property, buildings, improvements and fixed equipment, which it would lease to Dignity Health.

City Administrator Dave Kanner said because the city will maintain a lease agreement with Dignity Health, the hospital will not be able to be sold to anyone without the city's say.

"We're not going to be the sole shareholder in the hospital corporation anymore, but it's not like we're totally out of the picture," Kanner said. "They (Dignity Health) can't transfer the lease without our permission."

Marshall plans to speak during the public comment portion of tonight's City Council meeting, when ACH representatives will give a presentation about the proposed merger.

Giving the presentation will be ACH board Chairman Doug Gentry, former chairman Dr. Doug Diehl, ACH Chief of Medical Staff Dr. Miriam Soriano and board Vice Chairwoman Anne Golden.

The meeting, which is not a public hearing, will begin at 7 p.m. in the council chambers, 1175 E. Main St.

The council plans to accept public comments on the proposed merger during its meeting Nov. 6, when it will consider whether to approve an affiliation agreement between ACH and Dignity Health.

Kanner said the lease agreement could be ready for the council to consider by Nov. 6 as well.

Dignity Health plans to maintain ACH's current level of services for the next five years, according to a summary of the agreement between the two organizations.

It also states, "Dignity Health will succeed to and employ substantially all of the employees currently employed by ACH."

Marshall said the summary is too vague to gain a good understanding of the terms of the merger.

"The council should let citizens speak to this before the last minute," Marshall said. "We're rational people, and we'd like an open discussion before any decisions are made."

Gentry said the citizens' resolution would be difficult to put into play.

"Something like 'you'll never change services, and you'll never lay people off,' is hard to insist on "… the healthcare industry is constantly changing," Gentry said. "We expect, and Dignity is promising to preserve all of the general services that our hospital currently has "… for them, the only way to make this hospital work is to have a full staff."

Some community members say a merger with Dignity Health is necessary to ensure that a hospital keeps operating in Ashland. Others have raised concerns that Dignity Health, a chain of hospitals with past ties to the Catholic Church, could restrict women's reproductive services and the rights of terminal patients to get lethal prescriptions to end their lives, which is permitted by Oregon's Death with Dignity Act.

Dignity Health's Statement of Common Values says that physician-assisted suicide is not part of Dignity Health's mission.

Dignity Health spokesperson Tricia Griffin said it is "very unlikely" Dignity Health will budge from its stance against Oregon's Death with Dignity Act.

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.