Vashon Health Care District commissioners Eric Pryne, Don Wolczko and LeeAnn Brown met Wednesday, Jan. 22, at the Vashon Presbyterian Church. (Kevin Opsahl/Staff Photo)

Vashon Health Care District commissioners Eric Pryne, Don Wolczko and LeeAnn Brown met Wednesday, Jan. 22, at the Vashon Presbyterian Church. (Kevin Opsahl/Staff Photo)

Health care district considers consultant

Joe Kunkel, leader of a health care firm in Portland, Ore., could help with future provider talks

Commissioners of the Vashon Health Care District agreed to look into hiring a consultant to work with them when they enter into negotiations with potential health care providers.

Eric Pryne told the two other commissioners present, LeeAnn Brown and Don Wolczko, during the Jan. 22 board meeting that an island attorney recommended retaining Joe Kunkel, owner/president of The Healthcare Collaborative Group out of Portland, Ore. Pryne said Kunkel could be helpful in sorting through the complexities of talking to any health care provider.

“None of us have that kind of expertise,” he said.

Brown and Wolczko agreed Pryne should contact Kunkel, though they agreed he should not be officially hired unless there is board approval.

Contacted by email, Kunkel told The Beachcomber he planned on submitting a proposal for consulting services.

“Since I have not yet been retained by the district, I’m not sure how much I should be saying about a potential engagement,” he wrote, before noting his vast experience in the health care industry as a consultant. “I have a background in strategic planning, development and [ambulance] care — all in healthcare. I also am well connected with many of the health systems in the Northwest and believe I can help the District navigate short and long-term planning.”

The decision to seriously consider a consultant comes as the commissioners hold talks with Neighborcare Health, the Seattle-based nonprofit that operates the island’s main primary health care clinic. The organization’s CEO has said that it has “been challenged to fully support the cost of primary care operations” and a “sustainable, predictable funding source is likely the only way to ensure primary care services can remain on Vashon” — though Neighborcare has not asked the district to fund the clinic, nor has the board announced any payment for it.

Pryne also said at the commissioners’ recent meeting that a consultant could be useful in talking to potential health care providers who might have a long-term presence on the island.

“How are we going to be able to reach out to these provider systems and let them know what they need to know about Vashon — and what do we need to know about what’s important to them,” Pryne said. “This is the kind of expertise that I sense and I guess Tom senses, too, would be helpful to us.”

Pryne was referring to Tom Langland, the Vashon Health Care District board’s president, who told Pryne recently that he met with Kunkel and thought he would be a good fit in helping the district. Pryne spoke with Kunkel by phone and agreed with Langland’s characterization of him.

“He has a long career in health care administration and management,” Pryne said. “He knows the landscape and we don’t.”

Retired health care administrator Mary Bergman, who campaigned for a public hospital district on the island, chimed in during the meeting, saying how important it is for the district to hire a consultant.

“That’s vital,” Bergman told commissioners. “These physician-provider groups know what they’re doing and they don’t want to lose money, and if they can make money, they’re going to really try to do it. So having expertise on our end is vital and I’m really glad to see you’re investing in that.”

Asked by The Beachcomber after the meeting about the amount of influence health care providers can have in negotiations, whether it’s Neighborcare or University of Washington, Bergman said both entities “know their situation well.”

“So when you’re talking to them, you’ve got to get up to snuff on that and you go to somebody who is knowledgeable,” she said. “The potential is, they [the health care provider] have the upper hand and you don’t want to be there; you want to be even keel.”

According to Kunkel’s LinkedIn page, his firm provides development, operations and management assistance with health care facilities in the Pacific Northwest.

On a local level, Kunkel provided consulting to the Vashon-Maury Island Healthcare Collaborative a few years ago, when it was trying to work with Franciscan Health after the organization indicated it would no longer occupy a clinic on the island.

“I helped the group negotiate a reasonable exit with FHS. I also helped them make connections with the major systems in the Puget Sound to attempt to raise interest in coming to Vashon — Swedish, UW, Multicare and the county,” Kunkel told The Beachcomber. “It became evident the lack of consistent funding was going to make it difficult.”

Kunkel said he stopped working with the group around the time it announced it was going to gather signatures for a ballot initiative to establish a public hospital district.

Pryne said during the Jan. 22 meeting that it was because of Kunkel’s previous experience working with islanders that he would be able to come in “hitting the ground running” regarding the newly-formed hospital district’s talks with potential health care providers.

Kunkel graduated from Oregon State University with a business degree in 1984 and went on to receive an MBA at the University of Michigan before obtaining a Master of Health Services and Management Policy.

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