Healthcare collaborative focuses on community outreach

“The more people interested, the better decisions we will be able to make about what to do”

Members of the Vashon-Maury Health Collaborative, working to create sustainable health care on Vashon, have recently increased their outreach efforts regarding the island’s health care services and how to support them. Meanwhile, Neighborcare CEO Michael Erikson said last week that Neighborcare both needs and expects to see islanders create solutions for sustainable health care this year.

Last summer, Erikson announced that the clinic at Sunrise Ridge has been operating at a deficit and will require community support to continue in the long-term. Following that message, collaborative members, who had searched for a provider to serve the island when CHI Franciscan left, reconvened and held three meetings last fall. Those meetings focused on current operations at the Neighborcare clinic, health services islanders would like to have available on Vashon and how to pay for them. Neighborcare officials attended two of those three meetings, and in an email last week, Erikson said Neighborcare officials are optimistic about the efforts underway to bolster health care services.

“The efforts by the community and the Vashon-Maury Health Collaborative are very encouraging. Neighborcare Health needs to and anticipates we will see these solutions take shape in 2019,” Erikson wrote, in part.

Last fall’s meetings about this topic indicated that there are few options for supporting health care services and that several communities similar to Vashon have created hospital districts — taxing districts that support health care services.

Currently, the Vashon-Maury Health Collaborative is focused on reaching out to more people than the approximately 100 who attended the meetings last fall, according to collaborative member Tim Johnson.

“The more people interested in the topic, the better decisions we will be able to make about what to do,” he said.

Those involved with the outreach include longtime collaborative members and some people new to the group who expressed interest, Johnson said, including physicians, community activists and teachers. Two weeks ago, they held their first small-group meeting, Johnson said — with a book group of 15 people. In the coming months, they hope to hold dozens of such meetings. Like the public meeting last fall, the focus of these smaller meetings will be what health services the island has, what islanders want and how to pay for them.

The benefits of the smaller meetings is that they are more conversational than the larger ones and allow for more in-depth exploration of questions and answers, Johnson said.

He added that collaborative members have reached out to 20 to 25 groups — employer groups, church groups and book groups, “any place where double digits of people come together” — to see if they would like to participate.

The collaborative also welcomes inquiries and invitations from groups who might be interested; an hour is a reasonable amount of time to get a summary of the situation and have a conversation about it, Johnson said. Currently, there is no cut off date in sight for when this outreach phase will end.

“We are just getting started and getting rolling,” he said.

Collaborative members are working on other elements as well, including meeting with elected officials at the county and state levels. Johnson characterized that work as early stages, too, but said one message is clear.

“There is not a magic bullet, that much we know,” he said.

Additionally, the collaborative is developing its website, vmhealth.org. There is not much information there currently, Johnson said, but expects that by the end of the month more informative content will be in place.

The Sunrise Ridge clinic has struggled for years, which prompted CHI Franciscan to leave in 2016, citing losses of $500,000 per year.

Last year, amid assurances that Neighborcare did not intend to leave the island, Erikson said that they were expected to lose $350,000 — and that was after a staff reorganization that eliminated two providers, Scott Chaffin, DO, and longtime island physician Gary Koch, MD. That change was intended to create a staff mix of two medical doctors and the equivalent of two full-time nurse practitioners or physician assistants.

Part of the financial problem is an insufficient number of patients, but more importantly, it is the clinic’s mix of patients, Neighborcare officials said last year. Neighborcare is a federally qualified health center, and as such receives higher Medicaid payments than private clinics do. In fact, Medicaid is the only form of payment that meets or exceeds the cost of a visit, according to Neighborcare’s Chief Development Officer Joseph Sparacio. Last fall, he said that at the Sunrise Ridge clinic, only about 17 percent of the patients are covered by Medicaid.

Neighborcare, which operates several clinics in the Seattle area, also instituted a central call center for all of its clinics last year, a move that was deeply unpopular with many island patients because of long hold times and the difficulty of reaching Vashon clinic staff.

While several islanders expressed gratitude to Neighborcare last year during the community meetings, many others also expressed frustration about the dwindling clinic services.

CEO Erikson told islanders he would like to offer more primary care to this community, but had to “skinny it down” because of the financial shortfall.

“I would very much want to offer a more robust primary care for you. I would say you would be in a healthier place as an island,” he told those gathered at an October meeting.

Johnson, meanwhile, said that next month he plans to reach out to Neighborcare to determine if there have been improvements in long phone hold times and waiting periods to get in for appointments.

Currently, the staff at the Neighborcare clinic includes physicians Jessica Wesch, MD, and Jeffrey HansPetersen, MD as well as nurse practitioners, Hannah Harper, who joined the clinic staff in July and Wanda Hunt, who joined in November. An additional provider was slated to join the clinic in February, but had a change in plans, according to Neighborcare spokeswoman Mary Schilder.

Neighborcare is again actively recruiting to fill the position, and reaching out for others to fill in, she said.

To schedule a session with the Vashon-Maury Island Health Collaborative, email contact@vmhealth.org.

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