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COVID-19 vaccines, pandemic response and growth of Kootenai Health at issue in contentious race to serve on hospital board

UPDATED: Sun., May 16, 2021

Two incumbents and a former chief of staff at Kootenai Health face challenges from the Kootenai County treasurer, an emergency physician/health company executive and a retired financial services executive.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)
Two incumbents and a former chief of staff at Kootenai Health face challenges from the Kootenai County treasurer, an emergency physician/health company executive and a retired financial services executive. (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

The recommendations of the local Republican Party have cast a public partisan pall over the contest for seats on the board of trustees running Kootenai Health, a development all candidates say is unfortunate.

The challengers supported by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee said they were each independent thinkers, bringing perspectives to the board that include fiscal restraint in expansion of the community hospital as well as skepticism about mandated COVID-19 vaccines for employees. The incumbents and a former chief of staff at the hospital have banded together in the wake of the party’s recommendations not to elect them, running on their record of navigating the pandemic and against what they believe is an effort to inject politics into a nonpartisan board.

Dr. Terence Neff and Katie Brodie are seeking additional six-year terms to the eight-member board, which in 2020 controlled an operating budget of about $700 million. The hospital board has the authority to levy a tax to support operations, but has not done so since 1995. Brodie, a former Kootenai County Commissioner and chair of the local Republican party, said the hospital pivoted quickly in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and served the community well, at its peak serving 91 hospitalized patients with the virus.

“Our group was exhausted, but they kept right on going,” Brodie said.

The hospital’s response to COVID-19, and the delay of certain procedures, prompted Duke Johnson to enter the race. Johnson, a graduate of the medical school at UCLA and now an executive for a company that produces supplements, said the hospital’s decision to postpone certain procedures meant that for several weeks his mother did not receive an MRI that was intended to detect new cancer in her body.

“That was not our choice. That decision was made by someone, somewhere at the hospital,” Johnson said.

Neff said Kootenai Health, along with hospitals throughout Idaho and the country, followed guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state of Idaho in determining what procedures could be performed in the hospital while also maintaining the ability to treat what was expected to be a wave of critical patients early in the pandemic.

“It was out of necessity that we were forced to limit some of our activities,” said Neff, a longtime pediatrician who retired last year after practicing in the community for more than three decades, said.

Bob McFarland, a retired MD who served as Kootenai Health’s chief of staff, said the hospital was in good financial shape following the pandemic and that its future challenges didn’t come from its pandemic response, but from the influx of new residents to North Idaho.

“The hospital doesn’t have to make any changes to its long-term plans. The challenge is to keep up with the growth in the area,” McFarland said.

Johnson went further in his criticism of the community’s response to the pandemic, questioning the safety of the vaccines that nearly half of all Americans have now received with negligible reports of serious side effects, and the necessity of masks to ease transmission, despite CDC guidance that continues to recommend a mask for unvaccinated individuals to prevent the spread of the respiratory droplets from the nose and mouth that carry the virus.

Johnson said he feared Kootenai Health would mandate employees receive the vaccine, as they’ve done for influenza inoculations.

“You’re going to be making health decisions, whether you want to or not, you’re overwatching the behavior of how medical care is implemented to the citizens of Kootenai County,” Johnson said. “The citizens should have a right to speak for their own health care.”

That’s a position shared by fellow candidate Chris Nordstrom, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force and retired information technology specialist who moved to Post Falls seven years ago. Nordstrom said he was not an “anti-vaxxer,” noting that he’s up-to-date on his shots because of being in the Air Force, but he wouldn’t support making the vaccine mandatory for hospital employees.

“I am very concerned that the vaccines were produced in nine months, and they haven’t been tested thoroughly,” Nordstrom said, saying he also questioned the official death toll of the virus.

Nordstrom and Johnson also said they’d support measures to loosen mask requirements while in the hospital.

Steve Matheson, the Kootenai County treasurer who was also endorsed by the Republican Central Committee, said in an interview he wouldn’t get into questions about vaccination. If elected to the board, he said, he’d listen to the advice of medical professionals.

“What I bring to the table is something different: financial expertise, government expertise, something that is lacking in the composition of the board today,” Matheson said.

Brodie said she didn’t support mandates, but believed “everyone needs to take responsibility for their own well-being.” Neff said the board wouldn’t discuss whether to make the vaccines mandatory until after the Food and Drug Administration has completed its full review of the vaccines, a process that hasn’t taken place because the vaccines were approved for emergency use. The emergency-use activation still includes large-scale testing, the FDA notes.

A ‘premier medical destination’

Matheson said his major concern in running for a position on the board was its focus for the future. He pointed to the phrase “premier medical destination” in the hospital’s most recent strategic plan as evidence the hospital is pushing beyond its original mission.

“Our target audience should be the Inland Northwest, even down, all the way as far as McCall,” Matheson said.

The country treasurer initially had concerns about defining the area around the hospital as an “urban renewal district” under state law, an action approved by the Coeur d’Alene City Council in December 2019. The measure allows incremental tax increases to be captured within a district for infrastructure and other projects that would attract private development.

Coupled with the mission statement, Matheson said he was running to draw attention to the expansion of the hospital’s scope beyond its mission as a community hospital. Both Johnson and Nordstrom agreed.

The incumbents and McFarland countered that the idea of a “destination” location referred to the quality of care received at the facility, not as a way to compete with larger and more established health centers that included Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic.

“If you want to shut the whole thing down, that’s one way of playing the game,” Brodie said. “That’s not the course that this board has taken.”

“This is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. For us to fulfill that mandate means that we indeed have to grow,” Neff said.

Nordstrom said that if the hospital district wants to grow, it needs to be transparent about its reasons for doing so. He pointed to the recent closure of heart clinics in Spokane owned by Kootenai Health, and partnership with a pair of hospitals in Orofino and Cottonwood, as evidence of expansion plans that he was concerned took the focus away from Kootenai County.

“It seems like they’re going overboard,” Nordstrom said.

A partisan election?

Following the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee’s recommendation of Johnson, Matheson and Nordstrom, the incumbents and McFarland began campaigning together and endorsed one another. Tuesday’s election will select three board members, and voters will be asked to select their top three candidates from the list of six in the running.

All candidates said the public’s perception of the race had been driven by politics, with the blame either on the local GOP or other endorsements made in the race.

“They have made it a partisan race,” McFarland said of the Republican Central Committee. “We have combined forces. We do feel that it’s helpful to have three names associated together, formally on a slate.”

Brent Regan, the chair of the central committee, has defended his party’s attempt to inform voters of their top choices, noting that the answers to a questionnaire are available online. He said efforts to paint the recommendations as anything other than an attempt to further candidates with the organization’s values were fueled by anger that certain candidates weren’t selected.

“Any time you upset the apple cart, you’re going to get people that complain,” Regan said.

Johnson, Matheson and Nordstrom all said they appreciated the support of the central committee. But, they noted, that doesn’t imply they are all ideologically aligned on every issue.

“I think the community has been hurt by that,” Matheson said. “The public has been focused on the individuals and organizations supporting the candidates, and not really worrying about what the candidates themselves have had to say.”

One organization stepped up to support the incumbents and McFarland. A new political action committee known as the Citizens to Elect Qualified & Experienced Candidates was formed to support them, with donors that include Republicans, Democrats and independents, said Tom Cronin, the organization’s chairman. Supporters include Tom Malzahn, the former Republican treasurer of Kootenai County prior to Matheson’s election in 2014; Judy Meyer, a longtime trustee on the North Idaho College’s board of directors; and Dean Haagenson, a former Republican state representative, according to campaign disclosures from the Idaho Secretary of State’s office.

“These races are supposed to be nonpartisan, all of them,” said Cronin, referring also to the central committee’s recommendation of candidates for the Community Library Network and their campaign against the extension of a supplemental levy in the Post Falls School District.

“Medical care is not red. Medical care is not blue,” said Neff, the incumbent.

But Nordstrom countered that the committee should be able to help inform residents and help them elect members that he said “have consistent values that match the people of Kootenai County.”

Election Day is Tuesday in Idaho. Early voting closed Friday in Kootenai County.

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