March 18, 2001 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Dennis Swanger has taken on two major responsibilities in the past year.

Seated in his office at Eastern Oregon University, who became interim dean of the School of Arts and Sciences last year, talked about his most recent challenge: chairman of the board of Grande Ronde Hospital.

Swanger was elected hospital board chairman when Dale Basso resigned after one year in the position. Basso said family and business pressures caused him to give up the top position, although he remains on the board.

After spending 10 years on the La Grande School Districts budget committee, Swanger became a hospital board member more than five years ago.

Despite a background teaching science and pre-med courses, Swanger said he has learned a lot since he first started on the board.

The hospital is a complex business, a multi-million dollar operation, he said. There are federal regulations, unions, independent physicians, a very diverse operation.

Swanger said that with changes in medicine and medical practices, the learning never stops.

In the past five years, the total climate of medical care has changed, he said. Five years ago managed care was the thing; now its changing.

The hospital operation is a dynamic situation. It changes year to year, month to month.

The new board chairman praised the other nine board members, including Basso, who, Swanger said, brought financial expertise to the organization.

We have a very good board all volunteer, Swanger said. Its an important commitment, requires unselfishness and a lot of hours working very hard.

Continued financial security remains an important issue. Grande Ronde Hospital, like many small hospitals, has faced cuts in Medicare reimbursement and other financial pressures.

Because we do have reserves, because weve been run in a fiscally responsible way for a long time, we have a very good chance to continue in a fiscally viable situation, he said.

Swanger credited both the board and administrator Jim Mattes for maintaining financial security in the face of declining Medicare revenues.

Despite preliminary conversations last year regarding potential mergers with other hospitals, Swanger said the board is not making any plans for mergers.

These were very early exploratory-type talks, keeping our options open-type talks, he said. It is not something were currently discussing.

Were functioning well now as an independent operation. We see no options that would improve our current status.

Swanger moved to La Grande nearly 23 years ago from a Kentucky school to take a faculty position in biology and pre-med at Eastern. Although he was new to Eastern Oregon, Swanger was not new to the Inland Northwest. He grew up in Idaho and attended the Universities of Utah and Idaho.

Although he has been primarily a classroom teacher, Swanger has done some cancer research at Hanford during the summer, and he administered the water testing lab at Eastern for 10 years. When a private water testing lab opened in Pendleton, Easterns closed.

Swangers wife, Pamela, works at Sunflower Books. The couple has two grown daughters.