New survey spotlights residents’ unmet health care needs

Nearly 500 Islanders have responded to a community survey assessing health care needs on the Island, and two issues have risen to the top: difficulty paying for prescription drugs and the need for affordable dental care.

Vashon’s newly minted Health Care Council, a group that formed in part to learn about the health care needs of Islanders and how best to meet them, conducted the survey, which has been underway for two months, both online and in several business around the Island. So far, 461 people have responded. 

“It’s an acceptable number to be statistically relevant,” said Rick Skillman, a retired hospital administrator who heads the group. “We are very pleased with the response.”

One hundred ninety-one people, or 43.3 percent, said they have problems affording drugs, and nearly half of that number went without prescribed medications because of that difficulty, according to Hilary Emmer, who spearheaded the survey.

With that information in mind, members of the council will look into resources that may provide assistance with medication costs, and more information will be available after that work, she said.

Also vitally important is the wish many respondents expressed for dental care, with 39 people out of 205 indicating free dental care is the service they most need.

Respondents made their need for dental care known in various parts of the survey, according to Emmer, despite the survey not asking specific questions about dental needs.

“Dental care is a recurring theme here, and we never asked the question,” she said. “Imagine if we had asked about it.”

While the dental van through Medical Teams International comes to Vashon frequently, it cannot meet the full extent of the need on the Island, Emmer said. Members of the health care council and the Interfaith Council to Prevent Homelessness (IFCH), which administers the van’s visits, recognize the need and are planning to bring an additional van to the Island this fall to serve children at Chautauqua.

Not all of the pieces are in place yet, but expectations are that the first of the visits will take place this fall, Emmer said, and organizers hope to serve roughly 70 children in the coming school year.

Islanders who receive services from either van must qualify financially, according to Nancy Vanderpool of the IFCH, and the current plan for the youth van is to serve children whose families are eligible for the free and reduced school lunch program.

Skillman said he’s pleased about the addition of a van to serve children.

“That’s the kind of thing we want to do, bring more services to the Island for the population that cannot access them otherwise,” he said.

Another important survey result, Emmer noted, is that nearly 30 percent of the respondents with children at home reported their children were uninsured. While the actual number of respondents in this category was small, just 41, the percentage points to a problem and perhaps one with a remedy, according to Emmer.

State programs exist for providing insurance to children, and Emmer said she is willing to help people fill out the necessary paperwork to apply if necessary.

Islanders are still invited to fill out the survey. Copies are available at Vashon Pharmacy and Vashon Park District. Emmer said she hopes to receive a full 500 responses before drawing it to a close.

To share the full results of the survey, the Health Care Council plans to hold a community forum next month. Such a forum would also provide council members another opportunity to learn about holes in the health care fabric on the Island and correct misconceptions, Emmer noted. The survey showed that some Islanders do not know fully what services are available on the Island — mammograms, for example — and the council can provide correct information.

Now that the consumer survey is nearly complete, Skillman said the next step is to hold conversations with health care providers. Council members created a survey for the providers, and members of the council will meet one-on-one with each of the Island’s physicians, naturopaths, nurse practitioners, chiropractors and others to hear of their concerns, particularly regarding access to care for people who are not insured. Then they plan to host an informal dinner with all of the providers where they will talk about the results of the consumer survey.

The council, Skillman noted, wants to learn how it can help to make health care more accessible from providers’ perspectives. “We want to be able to make their lives easier if we can,” he said.

Members of the council have also been doing a considerable amount of networking, meeting with a variety of people, including representatives from Highline, which administers Vashon Health Center, and Rep. Eileen Cody.

In July, Skillman and Jeannine Emery, a member of the council and the president of the Granny’s Attic board, met with Mark Benedum, the chief executive officer at Highline Medical Group, and Susan Pursell, a top administrator there. Both Skillman and Emery said the meeting was a positive one. 

Their conversation was broad ranging and touched upon a number of topics, Skillman noted, from Highline’s lack of a visible presence on the Island to the money Granny’s Attic provides each year to Highline and the health center. They also discussed how vulnerable Vashon is to Highline, should Highline change its services here or choose to leave. 

“They (Highline adminstrators) have an opportunity to strengthen their relationship with the Island,” Skillman said.  

Emery expressed hope that a synergism will develop from the meeting and noted that Islanders, often an independent-minded sort, need to understand the financial realities of health care today. Without “an overseer” such as Highline, Vashon would not be able to support a primary care clinic such as the Vashon Health Center. “We’ve got to be partnered with somebody,” she said. 

Emery also spoke positively of the meeting with Cody, which included Emmer and Barbara Wells, another member of the council. “Whatever she can do she is trying to do,” Emery said.

That help includes providing contact information of people inside and outside of government who might be helpful for Vashon’s council to network with and learn from.

Just months into her work with the council, which first met at the end of April, Emery voiced enthusiasm for its work and community support so far.

No negative feedback about the council and its efforts has come her way, Emery said, noting, too, that interest in the group is high.

“Every time you talk to someone, they want to join in,” she said.


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