When the newly elected commissioners of the Vashon Health Care District were sworn in a year ago, no one anticipated a global pandemic would break out weeks later.
COVID-19 has complicated and obstructed almost everything the district has done this year in its quest to bring stability to Vashon health care. The virus was largely responsible for the commissioners’ most difficult decision yet: Our Nov. 18 vote to set a 2021 levy at a level that, under Washington’s complex property tax law, results in fewer dollars for the Vashon Park District.
This decision was not made lightly and was done to ensure our highest priority: continued access to medical care on the island for the coming year.
However, in hindsight, we realize that in failing to allow time to discuss it with the Parks District and to allow public input before acting, we also failed to be fully transparent. The reasons for our haste do not excuse this, and we realize that we must do better in the future.
Here’s how the pandemic forced our hand:
- Because of the timing of the district’s formation, we could not collect a levy in 2020, and will not see significant 2021 levy dollars until late April. That has required us to operate on money borrowed from King County to keep the Neighborcare-operated clinic open through October instead of closing. Now the subsidy with Sea Mar Community Health Centers requires us to borrow more than we’d expected. As with all debt, it must be repaid.
- We expected a robust response when we approached regional healthcare systems in May about providing primary care on Vashon. But our request went out just as those systems felt the economic impact of COVID, and they could not take the financial risk. We got no response, although there was a sentiment that without COVID the situation would be different. We faced the prospect of no clinic by the end of the year.
- Eventually, we reached an agreement with Sea Mar, but the $1.5 million annual subsidy it required was much higher than we had anticipated last year. We assumed the risk of contracting with them to ensure that the island would not lack medical care in the middle of a pandemic. We knew that if the clinic closed and our providers and staff left, it could be years before a new clinic would open, and at significant cost.
- When we began budget deliberations in late October, we looked hard for ways to set a 2021 budget and levy at a level that would not affect the park district. But we realized that there was a risk of not being able to cover our 1st quarter 2022 negative cash flow without additional revenue. We felt that it would not be fiscally responsible to keep assuming more debt, and realized that for 2021 an increase in the levy was our most responsible way to ensure the solvency of the District and the financial security of the clinic.
With that background, we want to reassure the island that we have a new clinic operator that is committed to working with us. Sea Mar has heard our requests for expanded hours and same-day care for acute conditions and plans to address them.
They have hired a new full-time physician, Dr. Tom Erdmann, an island resident. He joins ARNP Burdett Rooney, Dr. Wesch and Dr. Hanspetersen. We are very grateful to the providers and staff who remained committed to Vashon through this uncertainty.
While many people receive care off of the island, there are still lab tests, illnesses and injuries that can be managed without having to leave the island. There are still people who would benefit from local medical care and may not have the resources or the ability to make frequent trips off the island for care. There are still people who prefer to have a provider who is a member of their community.
We feel a great deal of responsibility for making sure that medical care is available in the midst of a pandemic. COVID numbers are rising on Vashon, and many COVID patients require follow-up care long after recovery. However, we also want to work in partnership with other districts and with all of those involved in meeting the needs of the island in challenging times.
There are many unknowns about 2021. This is a one-year contract with terms that will be reviewed next fall. Our hope is that the clinic will do well, and will require less subsidy. Meanwhile, we are optimistic and look forward to working together for the good of the community.
Wendy Noble, Don Wolczko, LeeAnn Brown and Tom Langland are commissioners of the Vashon Health Care District.