Voters this fall will be choosing two of the five candidates running for the board of directors for the Petersburg Medical Center. Two incumbent board members are running for reelection and three are challenging those incumbents.
Through the borough charter and local law, the seven-person board has the authority to operate the hospital, hire a hospital administrator and oversee finances, including approval of the medical center’s budgets and contracts for health care providers.
Two incumbents on that board are running for re-election.
Jim Roberts, 76, is retired from a 41-year career with the U.S. government as a program manager on computer projects and computer security. He and his wife moved to Petersburg almost eight years ago and has a son and three grandkids in Maryland.
Roberts has served four years on the hospital board and supports PMC’s phased approach to constructing a new facility.
“My thing is that Petersburg doesn’t need a new hospital, the hospital needs a new building,” Robers said in a recent interview. “The current building is old. It’s got infrastructure issues, the plumbing, electric, mechanical systems, I mean they’re functioning but we’ve had issues with them. The rooms are not big enough. We’ve got waivers, grandfathered in and things like that could be discontinued at any point. It just needs, we’re lacking space.”
Roberts thinks whatever entity winds up as the health care provider here will basically mean the same level of services for a community this size. And he noted that PMC has looked for partnership opportunities with the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and others.
“We talked with SEARHC, we talked with Bartlett (Regional Hospital), we talked with Providence (Alaska Medical Center),” Roberts said. “We do partner with these other facilities. We do share with other facilities for like buying supplies, medicines so that we can get a better price. We do things with that. We’re starting the telehealth, which has become big, because of the pandemic it’s pushed it faster onto the as being covered by Medicare and Medicaid and those types of things.”
Roberts would like to see more services for Petersburg’s aging population, like in-home personal care. That’s not the home health that’s already been started here but can be support for seniors for their day to day living needs.
Another board incumbent is 61-year-old Kathi Riemer, who’s retired from a career in education. She worked 12 years as a teacher with Petersburg School District and eight years as a school administrator in Juneau.
Her children are the fourth generation in her family to go through Petersburg schools and her grandkids will be will be the fifth. She’s been on the hospital board for two terms and also serves on the medical center foundation board.
“I really enjoy being on both boards because the board members, they really are great to work with and they do really care about our hospital and health care in Petersburg,” Riemer said. “And I also believe that our CEO (Phil Hofstetter) is probably the best that we’ve had in a really long time.”
Riemer feels like the resolution of assembly support for a phased approach to constructing a new hospital was one step early on in the process. She thinks any debate about PMC versus another health care provider is premature. And she pushes back against a concern she continues to hear that a new hospital will mean higher property taxes.
“I’ve heard it over and over and over from the CEO that we will not tax Petersburg for the building of a new hospital,” Riemer said. “Most of the board members own homes in Petersburg, my kids own homes in Petersburg, my parents own homes in Petersburg, we don’t want new taxes. And the board continues to say that this will not be a funding mechanism for the new hospital, but it continues to be a question.”
Riemer also says she’s heard from local residents a desire to have babies born again at Petersburg Medical Center, something she wanted to push for when she first got on the board. However, she says she’s learned since not enough babies are born every year to justify having an anesthesiologist on staff full time to support that service. And she thinks a new hospital built by PMC or SEARHC will not change that.
Three people are challenging the incumbents for those seats.
55-year-old Donna Marsh is a local business owner, wife and mother of five sons. She’s lived in Petersburg over 35 years, has served on the school board and others in the community and is active in her church.
Marsh said the conversation has been one-sided for a new hospital facility. She doesn’t think the community can afford a new hospital whether it’s PMC or SEARHC or anyone else building it.
“Few private entities have that kind of money and the reason why is, no matter what, it’s going to fall back to the tax payer and the users, or the consumers of the hospital that will end up paying for it,” Marsh said. “And we simply can’t afford it. I think COVID has changed everything. And I think it would be a shame to have a state of the art facility that is simply staffed by employees to maintain it. It’s going to take an army to maintain it.”
Marsh praises the health care provided at the Joy Jannsen Clinic and wants that service to continue. But she thinks people will continue to seek health care outside of Petersburg or rely on being airlifted to a larger facility if they need more advanced care.
Marsh opposes health restrictions on gatherings and other COVID measures and doesn’t want the local hospital pushing for that response to the global pandemic.
“I don’t think we should and I especially don’t think it’s government’s responsibility and PMC being a government entity I don’t believe it’s their responsibility to eliminate all risks,” she said. “I mean if that was the goal nobody should ever leave their house henceforward and forever and maybe there are some who really think that is the case but I think people want to live their lives. That’s what America is about.”
Marsh does not think the community can afford to add more services. She also said the hospital can’t rely on Medicaid and Medicare for funding forever and needs to look into other sources of income.
Another candidate is 43-year-old Heather Conn, in her third year as principal at Rae C. Stedman Elementary School. She was born and raised in Petersburg, and is married with three kids. She went to University of Alaska Southeast and returned to Petersburg for a teaching job in 2015. She has three masters degrees in special education, elementary education and educational leadership.
Conn served on an early childhood education board in Petersburg for about five years and is on the tribal council for the Petersburg Indian Association. She’s running for the hospital board hoping to be part of growing services at the medical center.
“Working at the school district you know we hire itinerants that come in and we hire those itinerants because there’s nobody local that can do this for us,” Conn explained. “So we’re hiring psychologists and we’re hiring speech pathologists and we’re hiring occupational therapists and although we have those at our hospital, we don’t have enough of them. And so I’m hoping that we can somehow grow into offering everything at a community level, I’m hoping.”
Conn thinks there’s potential for partnerships between the Petersburg Medical Center and another health care provider like the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. However, she said she wants to keep the personal connection that PMC is providing.
“One thing that I’ve always thought is oh if we go with SEARHC we’ll be able to have babies being born here again,” Conn said. “I had all three of my children right here so that was pretty exciting. That’s not the case really. There’s a lot of details that are involved in it and so I would like to explore the services. I know that as a family right now I travel to Wrangell every three months because my son needs to see an endocrinologist. We have an endocrinologist right a hop, skip and a jump away in Wrangell. So how can we work together to bring those services in whether it’s telephonically, whether it’s videoconferencing, whether they’re coming here. I know our medical center does a lot of that already.”
Conn said she’s looking forward to seeing the results of a needs survey conducted by PMC this year.
Al Gross, 59, born and raised in Juneau, is an orthopedic surgeon and commercial fisherman. Gross practiced in Juneau and Petersburg for around 25 years. He made Petersburg his home about nine years ago and was a part-time employee at PMC from 2013 until 2018. He’s still licensed but is not currently practicing medicine. He challenged Dan Sullivan for his Senate seat in 2020.
Gross would like to see local control continue for the health care that’s offered here.
“The nurses and the physicians and all the hospital staff here in Petersburg really work hard to deliver great care and I don’t want to lose that,” Gross said. “I think it’s really important that we retain that sense of personal caring, regardless of which path the hospital ends up going. I’d like ideally to keep community control of the hospital because that’s I think what makes it such a special place. But I’m certainly willing to have a discussion and listen to other options.”
As far as new services, he’d like to see a magnetic resonance imaging machine in Petersburg and would like to see colonoscopies and other minor procedures performed as well. He’d also like to address the high cost of health care, a theme from his Senate campaign, and take steps to bolster long term care at the medical center.
“Petersburg is an aging community and many people want to be able to stay here,” he said. “Some people can’t afford the very high rates that we see with long term care, but we need to build upon that because certainly the community’s aging and we need to plan for that strategically.”
He praises the work of the staff and leadership at the Petersburg Medical Center during the pandemic and encourages people to get vaccinated.
Five are running, and voters will chose two. Top two win those seats.
KFSK and the Petersburg Pilot will host a candidate forum Tuesday, September 21 7-8 p.m. and it will be broadcast live on KFSK.