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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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‘There’s a need for more’: Five years later, MultiCare plans to keep expanding access to primary care

It’s been five years since MultiCare entered the health care market in Spokane County, purchasing Deaconess and Valley Hospitals from Community Health Systems halfway through 2017 and turning the vast majority of the region’s care into a nonprofit landscape.

Since then, MultiCare has worked to make its mark on the area’s care system through the purchase of the Rockwood clinics and expanding services.

It hasn’t always been easy. While Valley Hospital’s finances remain stable, Deaconess Hospital operated at a loss in four of the past five years for which financial data is available, ending in 2020.

Last year, however, Alex Jackson, the new chief executive for MultiCare in the Inland Northwest, said MultiCare was able to meet its forecasted budget for 2021. He acknowledged that two major factors are impacting the provider’s bottom line: staffing and supply chain issues.

He said the “Great Resignation” has forced his team to be creative and pay out bonuses and incentives to keep staff.

“It’s pushed us to be innovative, thoughtful and to make sure our pay is competitive,” Jackson said.

MultiCare had to adjust its spending during the pandemic to increase pay for providers, state financial statistics show. Jackson said MultiCare was offering bonuses for both new providers coming to work with them and those who stayed.

The hospitals also relied during the pandemic on traveler nurses, who did not come cheap, especially at the height of waves of the virus. Jackson said MultiCare has been relying on travelers less in recent months.

Beyond labor costs, the supply chain has squeezed health care systems for cash.

Some of what the hospital routinely purchases is more expensive today than it was even in January. Remodeling or adding on to clinics also costs more, with the price of construction materials and inflation coming into play.

Still, MultiCare plans to continue to expand and solidify its impact on the region.

“I think we’re really focused on trying to grow and to improve our access to the services we have today,” Jackson said.

He cited Spokane’s population growth, as well as the aging population, as reasons improving access to care is important.

“As people get older, there’s a greater chance they need health care, so we want to make sure we’re growing and ensuring access for population growth as well,” he said.

One of the biggest investments MultiCare made when it entered the Spokane market was converting the hospitals and Rockwood clinics to the Epic system for electronic health records.

The multimillion-dollar investment meant that all four of Spokane’s major hospitals, operated by Providence and MultiCare, use patient software that can communicate, making patient transfers or referrals much more seamless.

MultiCare operates as a nonprofit organization, unlike its predecessor, so it also opened a foundation to raise money for its hospitals and services back in 2017.

A new oncology unit opened at Deaconess Hospital last year, and Jackson said they plan to continue to invest and expand access to primary care as well.

MultiCare has expanded its Rockwood clinic at Quail Run, and opened a pediatric clinic in Moran Prairie. The provider is committed to reaching people in their own communities, Jackson said, citing clinics in Medical Lake, Airway Heights and Deer Park.

He expects to announce further expansions in the near future.

“We’re continuing to invest in primary care because we believe there’s a need for more,” Jackson said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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