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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Our View: Free Shriners Hospital offers lifeline to families

There’s no good time to lose a community institution as extraordinary as the Spokane Shriners Hospital for Children.

But if the Shriners close it after more than 80 years of free orthopedic care provided to children in four states, plus Canada and Mexico, it will be at a potentially horrible time.

Financial pressure is crushing families, workers are losing jobs and the health insurance that goes with them, homeowners are losing their houses, states including Washington are withdrawing health care coverage from low-income working people. For families with those woes, plus the pressures of a child with severe orthopedic problems, the Spokane Shriners Hospital will no longer be the godsend for them that it has been for thousands of others.

Unfortunately, economic conditions and societal trends have ganged up to give the Spokane Shriners Hospital a thrashing.

The national endowment that supports the 22-hospital network has been hammered by an anemic stock market. Moreover, donations are down, partly because of dwindling ranks among Shriners whose energy and antics have been a fundraising mainstay. Individual members of the fraternal organization also have been largely responsible for finding and referring the young patients.

Meanwhile, in contrast with the 1920s when the hospital network was founded, health insurance plans have grown common, giving many families financial options that render the appeal of free care less compelling.

As many families are finding out, however, a recession can disrupt those comfortable circumstances in a hurry.

The puzzling fact is that many of the beds at Spokane’s hospital lie empty, even though its care is free at a time when health care expenses are notoriously burdensome. The hospital’s average population last year was down to seven, while officials say it needs to be at least eight for efficiency’s sake – and they’d prefer 10 to 15.

But in less than three months, on July 6-7 in San Antonio, Texas, the national organization will decide how to handle its financial emergency, very possibly by closing six hospitals, including Spokane’s.

Nationally, there seem to be no promising alternatives. Locally, officials are exploring health care partnerships that might allow the Shriners’ mission to continue, even if not in its own brick-and-mortar home.

That wouldn’t be the same, of course, but if there’s a chance to preserve this service for families in need, it warrants the community’s encouragement.

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