Islanders create survey to explore health care issues

A group of Islanders concerned that some residents may lack access to adequate health care has begun to explore the Island’s changing medical landscape in an effort to understand the extent of Vashon’s unmet need.

The group, which has dubbed itself the Health Care Council, began meeting in late April. Its first step will be to issue a survey this week that includes questions about medical insurance and Medicare, whether Islanders have been turned away from any Vashon clinics because they’re on Medicare or lack insurance and whether they’re having trouble paying for prescription drugs. It also asks if they’d seek treatment if there were a free clinic on the Island.

Rick Skillman, a former chief executive officer of a hospital and a longtime health care administrator, said the decision to explore the issue was triggered by changes at the Vashon Health Center, a busy clinic operated by Highline Medical Group. The health center initiated a policy earlier this year requiring seniors new to its practice or current patients turning 65 this year to purchase medical coverage through a Medicare Advantage Plan rather than through traditional Medicare.

The lack of notice around that decision “was a shock to me,” Skillman said. It also underscored the Island’s vulnerability to policy shifts at Highline, a Burien-based health care company that has often noted its Vashon clinic does not turn a profit.

But Skillman said he and others who came together to discuss the situation soon realized “the issue is much bigger than Highline.”

“The holes in the safety net are getting bigger. More people are falling through and do not have access and can’t get basic health care,” he said. 

“The issues are big and complex, and we’re taking baby steps now to see how we how we can help our community understand what’s happening and how we as a community can marshal our resources to best serve people who are at risk,” he added.

The group includes several Islanders with a keen interest in both health care and Vashon’s under-served populations. Skillman is a member of the Sunrise Ridge Health Services board, which owns the land the clinic sits on. Another member of the Health Care Council, Mary Jo Svendsen, is vice president of the Sunrise Ridge board. Jeannine Emery, who is the president the board at Granny’s Attic, is also a part of the group, as are Yvonne Pitrof, director of the Vashon Maury Community Food Bank, Hilary Emmer, a citizen activist, Barbara Wells, a member of the Sunrise Ridge board, and a handful of others. Several of the members noted they’re serving on the new council as citizens, not as representatives of other organizations they’re involved with.

The Health Care Council hopes to get 1,000 or more responses to its survey, which will be available online as well as at a number of retail outlets, medical offices, social service agencies and elsewhere. It also plans to conduct one-on-one surveys with Vashon’s health care providers, including physicians, naturopaths, nurse practitioners and physical therapists.

The direction it takes from there will depend largely on the responses it receives from its seven-question patient survey and conversations with providers, members said.

“It’s a starting point,” Skillman said of the two surveys. “What will it take for us to get our arms around the problems? We don’t know yet. We need data.”

But Susan Pursell, administrator at the Highline Medical Group, said she questions the group’s premise. Told of the new council by The Beachcomber, she said she supports the efforts of any Vashon resident to better understand the health care situation on the Island. At the same time, she said, she doesn’t believe many Island residents are failing to get their health care needs met.

Highline has a charity program available to those who can’t afford care at the health center, she said. Some of those who fail to get their medical costs covered that way can get their bills paid by Granny’s Attic, a bustling thrift store that has a long-standing relationship with the health center to help offset its day-to-day operational costs as well as cover medical bills Islanders can’t pay.

“I don’t believe there’s an access problem,” Pursell said.

As for the council’s survey, she said Highline would have participated in the effort, had the council asked.

“I believe the citizens of Vashon have every right to form whatever council they’d like to and do any survey they like to,” she said. But, she added, “I don’t know where they’re going with this. No one has spoken to me about it.”

The council’s efforts come at a time of some frustration with a few changes in the way Highline manages the Vashon Health Center. The clinic, for instance, recently announced not only a change in the way it handles Medicare but also a requirement that those without insurance pay a minimum down payment of $75 at the time of service, a move, some felt, that undermined the health center’s commitment to see those who couldn’t afford to pay for service.

Some of those involved in the group also expressed frustration with Highline’s responsiveness to Islanders’ concerns. For instance, two members of the group — Emery and Emmer — have called Highline’s comptroller six times in the last two months to try to better understand the organization’s publicly available tax returns. The comptroller has not returned the calls.

Pursell said she’d heard about calls to the comptroller and instructed Rita Cannell, who manages the Vashon Health Center, to attend the next board meeting at Granny’s, to which she has a standing invitation. Pursell also acknowledged the sometimes strained relationships among the various players involved with the health center, though she said it was largely between Highline and its landlords on the Island, the Sunrise Ridge board. 

“It’s difficult to continue to be challenged when we’ve offered to be very transparent,” Pursell added.

But those involved with the new council say their concerns about health care on Vashon go beyond the health center. In fact, according to Svendsen, one of the goals of the group is to build “a stronger and more productive relationship with Highline.”

“We’re not trying to create a protest group,” she said. “We’re trying to find strategies and plans to work with existing health care providers in order to create an Island-wide collaboration to meet an expanding base of health care needs.”

The situation is increasingly complex, they note, in part because of changes at the federal level stemming from the new health care legislation as well as the escalating cost of medical care. Emery, as an example of what Islanders are facing, noted her own situation: Her insurance plan covers only generic versions of prescription drugs, but one of her prescriptions doesn’t come as a generic. As a result, she’s now paying $250 a month to buy the medication.

“That’s what people are facing,” she said. “I think some people don’t realize the burden that is.”

Providers, from physicians to pharmacists, are also reeling from some of the changes and the uncertainty of the shifting landscape, Skillman noted.

“The pressures on all the providers are just getting greater and greater and greater,” he said. “I don’t know that our group can stem the tide. But we can identify it. We can get information to the Island, so that people are aware of what’s going on.”

A successful outcome, Skillman added, might be a new kind of preparedness effort, similar to VashonBePrepared but focused not on emergencies but on the Island’s pressing health care needs. 

“We may not be able to change what happens,” Skillman said. “But I want us as an Island to be prepared to take care of our own."

— Susan Riemer contributed to this report.


The online version of the Health Care Council’s survey is located at Paper versions are currently available at Vashon Youth & Family Services, the Vashon Pharmacy, Vashon Bookshop, Vashon Print & Design, Cafe Luna, Minglement and The Burton Mercantile, also known as Sandy’s.




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