El Camino Hospital district board candidates discuss COVID-19

The five candidates for three seats on the El Camino Healthcare District Board of Directors all stated that the response to the COVID-19 pandemic was the greatest challenge facing the district, though they expressed confidence in the district’s financial situation during a candidate forum Sept. 15 hosted by the League of Women Voters.

Two incumbents on the board, Julia Miller and John Zoglin, are running for re-election against three challengers – two medical doctors and a clinical psychologist. The district is one of the few hospital districts left that oversees a hospital system with an estimated $1 billion budget and also redistributes taxpayer money in the form of grants to benefit the local community.

“We’re in a very strong financial position,” Miller said. “There were sacrifices made when COVID hit and we’re slowly recovering from those hits.”

Zoglin said that despite the district going from making $8 million a month to losing $24 million a month as a result of the pandemic, as well as a projection to lose money on the budget next year, the district has the flexibility not to panic.

“Luckily, the financial strength is almost unmatched,” he said. “This has given us the flexibility to respond with some agility.”

Miller and Zoglin, neither of whom are physicians, touted their experience, accomplishments and connections – Zoglin in tech and Miller in the local community. Zoglin has been on the board since 2007 and Miller since 2012. The three challengers mentioned their expertise in specific areas. Meghan Fraley, a psychologist, pushed for mental health resources. Dr. Jane Lombard, a cardiologist, said her time in acute care taught her the importance of providing quality treatment to everyone – especially the marginalized. And Dr. Carol Somersille, an OB-GYN, said taking care of women and families in the district has given her a “boots on the ground” experience with the inner workings of the district and hospital.

All five candidates also expressed support for the overlap between the district board and the El Camino Hospital board. Although the two have separate functions, one of the district board’s main responsibilities is to appoint the 10-member hospital board. The five members of the district board typically also serve on the hospital board, allowing for a mix of representatives from the community and medical experts for specific guidance.

“The current structure works extremely effectively,” Miller said. “The five appointed board members compensate for the skills and competencies that the elected board members may not possess.”

Pandemic concerns

During a time of uncertainty, voters’ confidence in how the candidates might direct the healthcare district’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic could determine who wins in the Nov. 3 election.

“As the economy collapses with COVID – it will come back – but right now there are people who are without jobs, without insurance, and that’s going to be accentuating the problem,” Lombard said, adding that the district will have to determine how to address the social determinants of health.

Fraley stressed that the community understand the difference between the district and hospital boards, and that the goal of the healthcare district should be to think broadly about how to collaborate with other community leaders and school districts regarding COVID-19, the resulting economic downturn and mental health disparities.

“The critical part is to meet the unmet health needs of our community and to create more health-care equity,” she said.

Because the hospital is not connected to an academic institution such as Stanford University or UC San Francisco, the role the district can play during the pandemic is to “train, test and treat,” Zoglin said.

Somersille added that the greatest challenge to her would be to “balance the financial security of the district while still allowing for the health of our community in all aspects.”

Miller, in her case for re-election, stressed the importance of continuity based on her work with the community.

“You don’t want to switch horses in the middle of a race,” she said.

The Town Crier will be publishing interviews with each of the five candidates for the El Camino Healthcare District board in next week’s issue.

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