By MALLORY GRUBEN
Union health care workers, local officials, and community members in Eugene launched a campaign this month to save the city’s only hospital and emergency room.
PeaceHealth announced on Aug. 22 its plans to close Sacred Heart Medical Center University District, a 117-bed hospital that provides general medical care, emergency services, in-patient rehabilitation, and behavioral health care. The Vancouver, Washington-based health care chain says the hospital is losing about $2 million per month. It wants to move most of the services offered in Eugene about six miles away to its Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield.
According to PeaceHealth’s plan, that would start first with emergency services being transferred in November, then inpatient rehab services transferred in early 2024. PeaceHealth officials say the behavioral health services will continue at University District until there is a “sustainable alternative.” The closure requires approval from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA).
The day after the announcement, the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) released a statement calling the decision a disaster. On Sept. 11, other unions — including Service Employees International Union Local 49, the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, and Teamsters Local 206 — joined ONA in urging PeaceHealth to reverse its plan. The unions are sponsoring a community petition asking OHA and Governor Tina Kotek to reject the planned closure. That petition and more ways to help are available online at SaveEugenesHospital.com.
Kevyn Paul, a charge nurse in the hospital’s emergency department, said many of the patients her hospital helps are dealing with mental health crises, homelessness, or drug addiction. It’s not unusual to see the same patient multiple times a month.
Transferring those patients to RiverBend would not only increase the Springfield hospital’s workload — including an estimated 70 more patients per day in the emergency room — but it would also bring a vulnerable patient population that nurses in Springfield aren’t as familiar with, Paul said.
“A lot of our special population, the unhoused and mentally ill patients, feel more comfortable here because we are very accepting of them,” Paul said. “They don’t feel comfortable going to RiverBend most of the time.”
It’s also hard for those patients to get to RiverBend because many of them do not have cars. The facility is only six miles away, but that’s a long distance if your only mode of transportation is walking, Paul said.
RiverBend is located on the other side of the Willamette River from University District, across a bridge where traffic often backs up during rush hour.
“Consider the impact to our response time and cost. Our estimates are that every round trip transport will increase by 27 minutes,” Eugene Mayor Lucy Vinis said at a Sept. 11 press conference hosted by ONA. “Think about what that means to people in West Eugene who have a heart attack or a house fire or another life-threatening crisis. Lives will be lost.”
Patients who can get to RiverBend report long wait times in the emergency room, sometimes as long as 18 hours, according to ONA. Adding more patients to that would only increase that, Paul said.
PeaceHealth officials told the Labor Press that they would add staff and be able to open more beds in RiverBend to offset the increased number of patients. That should decrease wait times overall, they say. They added that many of the region’s emergency room patients are already taken to RiverBend first, and the health care chain operates several clinics in the Eugene-Springfield area that people can go to for non-emergency care.
“Our goal is always to provide the best care possible for our patients. We are developing detailed plans to transfer services with minimal interruption,” a PeaceHealth spokesperson wrote in an email responding to questions from the Labor Press. “This includes partnering with our city and county EMS, fire and law enforcement partners to ensure they understand new procedures and are prepared for the changes.”
At the press conference, Mayor Vinis said she was told about PeaceHealth’s plan just five days before the hospital’s public news release. Workers learned about it the day before it was announced. Several bargaining units, including ONA nurses and SEIU Local 49 technical and service workers, just negotiated new contracts. PeaceHealth’s plan to close the University District never came up.
Lane County Commissioner Laurie Trieger said PeaceHealth calls itself a community partner, but it’s not acting like it right now.
“A decision of this magnitude was not in fact done in partnership at all,” she said. “It was dropped on this community with no time to consider how best to mitigate and prepare for the loss, no time to plan for a thoughtful off ramp of services, no time to seek new allies or collaborators to fill service gaps and plan for the future.”