by DOUG NADVORNICK & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & J & lt;/span & udy Cole occasionally reminds visitors that she and her mother were both born at Spokane's Deaconess Hospital. Now as the secretary of the the board of Deaconess' parent company, nonprofit Empire Health Services (EHS), she has relayed the same story to the potential buyers of Spokane's second-largest hospital system. She wants them to understand how deep Deaconess' roots run through the Inland Northwest.

"We made sure that they knew of its importance," says Cole.

She is convinced that, after reviewing about 20 potential suitors, Empire board members have chosen a for-profit company -- Community Health Systems (CHS) of Nashville, Tenn. -- that they believe understands and appreciates the hospital's legacy. And she says they're excited about the company's future.

"At our leadership meeting [when the board voted to approve the sale in October], there was applause and people were hugging each other," says Cole. "This allows us to move forward."

The sale won't be final until the Washington Department of Health and state Attorney General give their blessings, which could happen by the end of the year. The price that CHS will pay hasn't yet been announced.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n the phone from his office in Nashville, CHS executive Bill Hussey lists the reasons why his company pursued Empire. "First of all, Spokane has an incredibly sophisticated and credentialed medical community," says Hussey. "I've talked to between 50 and 100 physicians, and the more I learn, the more I'm impressed. Every time I asked them about the best part of the system, they said the commitment of the men and women at the two hospitals [Deaconess and Valley]. It's been a very common theme that Spokane is lucky to have the quality and caliber of women and men who are working there. They have a deep sense of loyalty to those hospitals."

Hussey says CHS has agreed to make "a very significant commitment" to improve those hospitals. At Deaconess -- which opened in 1959 -- the wish list is long: a bigger, more welcoming lobby; new hardware and software so that doctors and nurses have access to patients' updated medical records in their rooms; an improved physical plant; better pay for doctors and nurses.

"I have already asked leadership there to prepare lists of their needs," says Hussey, who recently visited Spokane to meet with physicians and other staff and board members. "There are some specific references to projects in the purchase agreement." That agreement, he says, may be made public, perhaps after the sale is approved by state officials.

One piece of the agreement requires Empire officials to invest the proceeds left after paying the company's debts in a new foundation, independent of CHS. Cole and fellow board member Ron McKay say the foundation's priorities will be determined later by a local board, but they expect it to fund local medical research projects, among other things.

"Grants won't be made for at least a year," says Cole, noting that several nonprofit groups and researchers have already asked about funding.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & W & lt;/span & hen news of Empire's intention to sell spread earlier this year, some company employees were anxious; they worried about their jobs and the potential changes to the culture of their hospitals. Some are still anxious.

Dozens of Empire's unionized employees -- the Service Employees International Union represents 1,700 EHS workers -- braved the cold one evening last week for a candlelight rally in the field next to Lewis and Clark High School. Two employees told the crowd that they'd been part of negotiating sessions that day with EHS administrators and board members. They're pressing for a "successorship agreement" that would guarantee that current employees won't lose their jobs, seniority, pay or other negotiated benefits when CHS takes over, but they say Empire officials have resisted. Empire board member Ron McKay says CHS has already pledged to keep all of Empire's employees who want to stay and at their current pay rates.

"It doesn't make sense for them to have an unhappy workforce," says McKay. "They want to make sure morale is high."

Chris Barton, a registered nurse who is the union's chief bargainer, acknowledges the CHS promise. "Our employment is guaranteed but nothing else. That's only a small part of this," says Barton. "There are all kinds of work rules that we negotiated that aren't covered [by CHS' pledge] and that we don't want to have to negotiate again, things like how grievances are handled. Workers can't be fired without cause. People here had experience with those kinds of things before they formed the union."

Union members say they sacrificed several years ago when the company was hemorrhaging money and now they'd like to be protected. "We hope this employer will realize the hospital is more than just the building," says Barton.

A few hours before the vigil, Barton's colleague, John Donaghy, had reminded an Inlander reporter that former Empire CEO Jeff Nelson had made promises to employees earlier this year, when the company was searching for a buyer.

"'We'll honor all contracts,'" Donaghy quoted Nelson as saying. "He tried to allay our fears, but the current board said it never made that promise." Donaghy says employees are particularly worried because Community Health Services is "clearly an anti-union employer. We've had a rough time with them in other cities. We think they want to break the union."

Empire spokeswoman Christine Varela says, if the sale is finalized, CHS officials will have to choose whether to honor the current union contracts or discard them and negotiate new agreements. Unions represent registered nurses, technical and service workers at both Deaconess and Valley.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & thers with a stake in the sale are optimistic about it. Dr. Brian Seppi, the president of the Spokane County Medical Society, says EHS needs an immediate infusion of new capital and management to improve its tenuous financial situation.

"It could be argued that, more important than the infusion of money into the hospitals, is the need for a stable management team to lead them into the future," wrote Seppi in the society's October newsletter. "This is a fairly urgent situation since it seems the management team has been changing on a monthly basis. As one physician asked when recently meeting a new administrator -- should I remember your name or will you be gone by next week?" wrote Seppi in a later e-mail.

In addition to the medical society's support, EHS board member Ron McKay says the medical staffs of both hospitals, after months of discussions and public forums, have also endorsed the sale.

"Through the collective bargaining process, through employee forums, e-mails to employees, newsletter and the company Website, we've been able to keep them up to date on things," says McKay. "And I think most of them have gone from skepticism to optimism. They want this process to move faster. They're excited about the resources that Community is bringing to our system."

At least one longtime Deaconess loyalist is ready to give the company a chance.

"I got a letter recently from a woman who was a patient at the hospital 70 years ago," says Judy Cole. "She shared her memories of the care she received at the hospital, and she wanted us to know she thought we should go forward with this."

"We know we have to earn the respect of the people of the community," says CHS's Bill Hussey. "We're fully prepared to commit to the improvements and the capital investments that are in the agreement."

Christmas Tree Elegance Holiday Luncheons @ Historic Davenport Hotel

Tue., Dec. 6, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and Wed., Dec. 7, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
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