The front page of The Beachcomber last week featured fireworks and butterflies, but the big news was found on page 6.
In an op-ed for the paper, Neighborcare Health’s CEO Michael Erikson issued a call to action, telling islanders we need to figure out how we are going to support health care here.
It has been less than two years since the Neighborcare clinic opened on Vashon, and Erikson indicated he believes the clinic, which is supposed to break even each year, is going to need help from the community to meet that goal.
Much of what he said in the column bears repeating — and all of it is important reading.
“I believe this community will require a public/private solution in order to achieve that goal (sustainable health care),” he wrote. “It is also not a solution that Neighborcare Health can devise and direct the island to do. It has to come from the community, be decided by the community, and be executed by the community.”
Those who have been paying attention might have expected something like this was coming. Last fall, in an article for The Beachcomber, he shared that the clinic was falling short financially and was 3,000 patients short of its 7,500 patient goal. Earlier this year, in a move that upset many islanders, Neighborcare arranged for two doctors, Scott Chaffin and longtime island physician Gary Koch, to leave at the end of June. Additional efficiency changes are expected this summer. In all, Erikson said, the clinic is expected to see losses of $350,000 this year, down from previous projections of $750,000.
At best, this is disheartening news.
Erikson laid out potential options he believes islanders could pursue, both with drawbacks: create a health taxing district — a new property tax that would fund health services — or engage in annual fundraising to shore up the clinic’s deficit.
Just a few months ago, we wrote in this place in the paper that we would like to see some version of a community council be restored, or created anew, because the island is facing many challenges. This challenge — how to ensure that we have adequate, sustainable health services — surely has to be among the most pressing.
Some islanders have made clear they think creating a new council is a lousy idea. Others are interested in pursuing it, and county officials have said they would do what they could to support such an effort. We would like to see a small number of islanders pick up this task and start moving forward, if not this summer, then certainly this fall. And we hope islanders with experience in the health care field will also step forward to help lead conversations about where to go from here, regardless of whether a new council is created.
There is considerable information that needs to be gleaned before decisions are made regarding health care, including if financial assistance might be available from the county or state, understanding Neighborcare’s financial picture, determining if islanders would have control over how the money raised is spent, and if other health-related entities might also benefit if a health district is created.
Having a clinic on the island is essential. That is clear. What is less clear is how much the tab should be for islanders to keep the clinic here — and if islanders as a whole are willing to pick up that tab. There will be many questions going forward, and the answers will take some time to find. We think it is important to get started soon on the work ahead.