Call to schedule a surgery at the Pacific Rim Outpatient Surgery Center these days, and the phone rings and rings, with no promise of a voice at the other end.
The Bellingham center, with six operating rooms that handled outpatient treatments such as cataract surgeries and hip replacements, closed its doors Aug. 31 this year when the facility’s landlord, PeaceHealth, opted to not renew its lease.
Instead, PeaceHealth plans to take over the facility, expanding its own outpatient surgical center into the office on Squalicum Parkway. Pacific Rim (PROSC) has proposals in place to construct a brand-new, albeit smaller, facility in the Cordata area.
The Pacific Rim website still indicates the facility is open, though the organization vacated the premises Sept. 13.
PeaceHealth began the move-in process around the same time, and anticipates opening its new outpatient surgery center in early October, said Bev Mayhew, a senior director of marketing and communications for PeaceHealth.
“We’re in the stages of getting all the equipment in, getting some renovations [done], and putting our ducks in a row,” Mayhew told Cascadia Daily News Monday, Sept. 25. “I don’t have the latest date, but it’s fair to say [the facility will open] in the first part of October.”
But between Pacific Rim closing and PeaceHealth’s new facility opening, some patients may have lost contact or had their procedures rescheduled in the interim.
An employee at the PeaceHealth medical complex said they heard some patients recently haven’t been able to reach the surgeons that operated on them for follow-up appointments, though Mayhew said both PeaceHealth and PROSC worked to ensure “patients would not be inconvenienced” in the transition.
“We are not aware of any cases being delayed as a result,” Mayhew wrote in an email Wednesday, Sept. 27.
Leadership at PROSC did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication.
Region needs more operating rooms
The opening of PeaceHealth’s new facility can’t come soon enough, the medical nonprofit reported to the Washington State Department of Health earlier this year, as demand for outpatient surgeries in Whatcom County far outpaces availability.
“In 2021, the current eight mixed-use rooms at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center operated at 118% capacity,” PeaceHealth wrote in its report to the Department of Health. “The high occupancy results in scheduling delays and bumped cases and impacts the patient and family experience.”
More and more surgeries are being treated as outpatient procedures in recent years, Mayhew said, in part due to advancements in medical treatment.
“Some procedures that may have required one or more nights in a hospital can now be done in one day,” she explained, and as a result, demand for outpatient treatment has skyrocketed.
A July 2023 state Department of Health review of the proposed project said PeaceHealth plans to host six rooms at the new facility: five operating rooms and one procedure room.
Those six rooms come on the heels of two new operating rooms at St. Joseph’s, opened earlier this year, Mayhew said.
When the new outpatient facility opens next month, Mayhew said it will be staffed by about 43 employees — “adequate staffing to continue operations without any decrease in service from the previous surgery center,” she said.
PeaceHealth plans to advertise additional positions down the road “as demand dictates,” Mayhew added.
County leadership, responding to state requests for public comments, offered support for the new facility, citing population growth and limited access to health services.
“I witnessed firsthand the strain of the last few years on our community when access to healthcare services were limited due to the pandemic; now, with our lives returning to normal, I anticipate demand to be even stronger – for both inpatient and outpatient services,” County Executive Satpal Sidhu said in comments included in the July 2023 report. “More operating suites for outpatient procedures available on the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center campus will significantly enhance our ability to meet the needs of our community for years to come.”
PeaceHealth remains the sole hospital complex in Whatcom County and is one of the main health service providers in the region. In recent months, the nonprofit has faced significant backlash after it pulled services, closed its outpatient palliative care program and shuttered the local allergy clinic and overnight sleep lab.
In August, the facility announced it would re-launch comprehensive palliative care services in 2024 as a result of “community feedback.”
PeaceHealth has owned the property where PROSC operated since 2020, when it acquired PROSC’s “assets” but pledged to let the facility “operate independently,” according to a January 2020 report from The Bellingham Herald.
Though operations are currently suspended, PROSC intends to build and operate a new facility with three mixed-use rooms at a currently undeveloped site along West Horton Road, slated to open in late 2024, according to a July report from the state Department of Health.