Solutions needed for fire-destroyed health care provider housing in Sonoma County

Dieter Thurow is a financial and real estate consultant located in healdsburg. (Thurow Wealth Management)


As horrific as the impact of the fires were on North Bay communities, they had a disproportionate impact on our medical community.

Over 200 medical doctors plus more than 400 nurses, nurse practitioners and other health care providers lost their homes in Sonoma County. Some of victims were fortunate to find rentals in the area although most of them are still, and will be for the foreseeable future, in temporary housing. In addition to the housing crisis, it’s estimated that 20 percent of the physicians had children attending Cardinal Newman high school which also burned down.

There was a shortage of physicians in Sonoma County before the fires, primarily due to the high cost of housing. Now, there is no housing. This is a crisis that all of us need to address, and address it now.

In the aftermath of this disaster, health care professionals, like everyone else, need to start on the recovery process. They have to deal with insurance companies, decide on cleanup alternatives, evaluate settlement offers, deal with lenders, make personal financial decisions, etc. all of which are very time consuming apart from the energy drain. Obviously, time spent on this process takes away from the time available to deal with patients.

Since a number of the professionals will consider making changes, and we know of several who have made that decision, those remaining would be under even more stress. Therefore, a number of older physicians may now consider retiring earlier rather than later leading to even more deficiencies.

It’s a fact that most medical professionals were well-insured. That gives many of them financial options and the flexibility to consider geographical alternatives. While the professional opportunities have been there all along, given these very challenging circumstances, there are many incentives for moving elsewhere.

Having now outlined at great length the problems facing the medical community, let’s look at some potential solutions that could make it a little easier for professionals to stay here.

First, we suggest asking those affected medical professionals for their opinions on what help or support would be most relevant to them right now. Sutter Health and the Sonoma County Medical Association may have already started this process with Kaiser Permanente, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and Northern California Medical Associates probably not far behind. Perhaps employers could, for example, consider personal loans to their employees and/or some kind of “retention” bonus. Although this type of assistance is not in the employment manual, extraordinary times could require extraordinary solutions.

Second, we suggest appointing a task force, funded and supported by the various health care foundations, to actually address and solve the concerns raised by the professionals not only for the next few weeks but for as long as needed. That could include one-on-one professional help in dealing with insurance companies, the clean-up decisions, the lenders, looking at financial alternatives, contractors, etc. reducing the time commitment from them to a minimum.

We ought to remember that insurance companies are in the business to make money. There is nothing to suggest that the insurance companies will not interpret the policies to their advantage. To illustrate this point, we know of one prominent law firm that offers, pro bono, assistance with filing claims, evaluating settlement offers, and negotiating with insurance companies.

Third, we would suggest appointing a special and expert project management group to help medical professionals rebuild. This group would take over the entire process from planning through permitting until it’s complete. The objective should be clear. Get the physicians’ homes rebuild ASAP with as little time and energy commitment from them as possible.

Fourth, we suggest that the result is, or should be, more important than the process. That’s true for everyone, not just medical professionals. Although those in a position of authority will no doubt offer platitudes about their good intentions, community leaders should hold them accountable for results. We believe that what’s needed is a suspension of existing policies and streamline the entire application and permitting process. Looking for affordable, low density housing is fine, just not now!

The local bureaucracies will no doubt advance the argument that the city and county has lost substantial revenues and therefore, there’s no money available to add staff or work overtime. Perhaps we could import an experienced planning and building department staff from all over the state to help with the work load. We had to do it to fight the fires. Why not do it now to rebuild?

Please consider what is at stake here. While the fires have subsided, a real crisis has just begun.