Charting New Course, Health Care District Seeks Input

Our plan is to collect information from island groups and from federal, state and county agencies to see what their data says about health care — or lack of it — on Vashon.

What are Vashon’s most pressing unmet healthcare needs? What could and should we do to address them? What can we afford?

Your Vashon Health Care District commissioners and superintendent will be exploring those questions in depth over the next few months. We’ll be looking to you, our neighbors, for help in discerning the answers.

This is a time of transition for the District. Ever since voters approved its formation in 2019, we’ve focused our attention and resources almost exclusively on primary care, health care’s gateway and foundation.

We recruited a new provider, Sea Mar Community Health Centers, to take over the Sunrise Ridge clinic when it was in danger of closing because of ongoing financial losses. We subsidized the clinic’s operations with your tax dollars for more than two years.

Our contractual relationship with Sea Mar ended on Dec. 31. Now Sea Mar plans to operate the clinic with no taxpayer subsidy.

It also plans to build a new clinic on the property it purchased in the town core. In return for some commitments from Sea Mar to the community, we’ve agreed to continue to sublease the Sunrise Ridge space to them until the new building is completed.

We wish Sea Mar all success as it strives to meet Vashon’s primary care needs on its own. Now it’s time for the District to look at where else it should deploy its resources most effectively to help Vashon become a healthier community.

Maintaining primary care was the most critical need in 2019 and the chief focus of the campaign to establish the District. But backers also spoke then of the District’s mission to address other island healthcare deficiencies. And many of you have been pressing us for years to do more.

We’ve been told repeatedly that we should find a way to provide some kind of “urgent care” – walk-in, after-hours care for non-life-threatening injuries and illnesses that need medical attention today, not tomorrow.

Mental health, substance abuse and domestic violence professionals on the island have told us that programs that address those ills are seriously underfunded.

We’ve been approached about providing money for Vashon’s emergency planning and response efforts. Others have come to us seeking financial support for services that might help the island’s fast-growing senior population age in place.

Until now, ideas like these — whatever their merits or feasibility – were non-starters: Almost all the District’s money was committed to subsidizing the Sunrise Ridge clinic.

As of Dec. 31, that obligation no longer exists.

What can we do instead? Legally, almost anything. The state law that governs public hospital districts – that’s what we are, officially – says we can provide any health care services “appropriate to the health needs of the population served.” You can’t get much broader than that.

Most public hospital districts in Washington run or subsidize hospitals or clinics, as we did until recently. But some also operate or fund other services that they’ve determined are “appropriate to the health needs” of their communities. Some examples:

• The Arlington district sponsors a variety of wellness classes and workshops, ranging from nutrition and parenting to CPR training and diabetes prevention.

• The Lopez Island district subsidizes that island’s only physical therapy practice.

• The Edmonds district provides money to the local fire department for “community resource paramedics,” who work to connect those most at risk with needed services.

What services are most appropriate to Vashon’s health needs? Answering that question will be Job One for us for the next few months.

Our plan is to collect information from island groups and from federal, state and county agencies to see what their data says about health care — or lack of it — on Vashon.

We’re also in the early stages of planning a robust public engagement process. We want to hear from you, our neighbors, about the gaps you’ve experienced in health care on the island, and the shortcomings you’d most like to see your tax dollars address.

All this research will help us prioritize the island’s unmet needs. After that, we can develop alternatives for tackling them, then explore what’s feasible and what’s affordable.

Then we can act.

So, while this is a time of transition for your Vashon Health Care District, it’s also an exciting time. We now have resources to help address healthcare problems that have diminished the quality of life on Vashon for decades. If we get this right, we can help make this island a healthier place.

You’ll be hearing more from us in the coming weeks about how you can get involved. We look forward to hearing from you.

Wendy Noble and Eric Pryne are Vashon Health Care District commissioners. Tim Johnson is the District’s superintendent.