Elko General Hospital: Citizens Make a Difference

By Dan Steninger


Selling off Elko General Hospital (EGH) is the big news in northeastern Nevada these days. Which is of great importance to Nevada Journal readers because, well ... they might get themselves hurt when they’re up here hunting and they’ll be able to go to a hospital that is run by a real hospital company instead of the Elko County Commission.

Make that fishing.

Willie Molini, head of the Nevada Division of Wildlife (NDOW), seems to have misplaced all the deer. But they’d better hurry, as Willie is thinking about poisoning our creeks so there’s more room for Lahontan cutthroat trout, which fishermen tell us are about as much fun to catch as a gob of moss.

At least "endangered" trout is the official line from NDOW. We’re sure it’s just coincidence that our grand jury concludes Willie and the boys held up one of our gold mines for half a million dollars, and here comes a bunch of NDOW trucks to poison our water.

Where were we? Yes, the hospital. Last spring, the duly elected hospital board—rightly figuring that the answer to the ballot question "Shall we raise your taxes to build a shiny new hospital?" would be, in less kind words, go pound sand—decided the best way to get a new hospital would be to sell the operation.

But the board members didn’t want to lose "local control," which, as near as this local can figure, meant they wanted to sell to a company that would promise to build them a conference room in the new hospital.

Nobody paid much attention to the announcement, with at least some of us figuring a government operation offering to sell itself to a private company was just too good to be true.

Then in the fall of last year, the board announced that not only was it serious about privatizing the hospital, but it already had picked the company, had selected a parcel of land for a new hospital and was wrapping up all the details. Board members explained they had picked a nonprofit company out of North Dakota which they must have been real fond of considering they were going to give old EGH away. The town began to wake up at that point. Some were immediately suspicious of anything "nonprofit," some were upset that the county wasn’t going to get anything from the sale and others didn’t like any part of the deal, preferring to keep the hospital as a government entity.

Others started making a fuss about the location of the new hospital. The site happened to be next to a large parcel recently purchased by a group of investors which included two of the county commissioners, the chairman of the hospital foundation, a member of the hospital board and the board’s lawyer.

The ruckus was great enough that county commissioners finally thanked the hospital board for all its hard work, then put the hospital up for bids; and, no, there would be no restrictions against any company whose motive was profit.

Lo and behold, EGH was worth something. Several national hospital corporations stepped up with offers of $10 million, along with the promise of building a new facility in a few years’ time. As we write, the county is in the process of weighing which offer is best.

Elko residents win no matter what happens from here on out. We’ll get a new hospital—without a tax hike—run by a business specializing in that field; and the taxpayers won’t be on the hook—as they are when the county owns a hospital—for any potential losses.

And the whole ordeal was an educational experience for the town. Among the lessons learned: government officials need to keep citizens informed of their plans or the people will rise up to squash those plans no matter how good they may be; the difference between a nonprofit hospital and a for-profit hospital is the latter pays more taxes; private land speculation should be left to those who aren’t sitting on government boards with the power to direct growth; and health care is not a burden to be assumed by taxpayers, but a business that entrepreneurs are eager to undertake.

Now that we’ve unloaded our hospital, anybody out there want to buy a jail?

Mr. Steninger is editorial page editor for the Elko Daily Free Press.

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