Our right to healthcare is threatened again

We need to better understand what went wrong between Vashon Health Care District and Sea Mar.

The news that Sea Mar Community Health Centers will end its contract with Vashon’s Health Care District (VHCD) and leave the clinic on Sunrise Ridge at the end of 2022 has come as shock to many islanders who are concerned that our community will be, at least temporary, left without a primary care clinic that accepts Medicare patients if VHCD cannot swiftly find another operator.

VHCD commissioners said they too, were surprised by Sea Mar’s announcement last week that it would leave Sunrise Ridge, following stalled negotiations over a new contract between the two entities.

To compound the confusion, Sea Mar executives told The Beachcomber on Tuesday morning, as this newspaper went to press, that Sea Mar is still pursuing an interest in building its own health care clinic on Vashon, independent of VHCD.

We’ll continue to follow this story, of course.

But first, we need to better understand what went wrong between VHCD and Sea Mar.

At first glance, it certainly seems to us that VHCD was making reasonable requests in the contract negotiations, given that Vashon’s tax dollars have handsomely subsidized Sea Mar’s operations.

The commissioners had requested that Sea Mar — a nonprofit entity with revenues of approximately $400 million in 2021, which paid its executive director $1.2 million the same year — supply such items as a defined list of primary care services to be offered at the clinic.

Commissioners also wanted Sea Mar to agree that the minimum operating hours of the clinic would be 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and to come to a mutual agreement over additional hours of operation as needed.

Additionally, commissioners wanted Sea Mar to submit a clinic budget by Nov. 1 for the district to use in setting its annual levy, and to have input — not a deciding vote, but rather, just a say — in the selection of a clinic administrator.

But these contract negotiations, combined with other tensions in the relationship, seemed to all be too much for the executives in charge of Sea Mar, who abruptly broke negotiations by breaking up with VHCD.

And now, once again, our community needs a new provider, fast.

While the president of VHCD, Tom Langland, has expressed confidence that the district will be able to secure the services of another operator by the date of Sea Mar’s departure, it’s still a huge lift and a tight timeline.

The board of commissioners has acted responsibly since the inception of the Health Care District in 2019, and we mustn’t forget it was nothing short of a miracle when they signed Sea Mar to take over the clinic in 2020, during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were zero other interested providers at that time.

Since that time, Sea Mar’s Vashon clinic’s staff, led by Dr. Thomas Erdmann, has earned our island’s deepest gratitude for its service during a public health crisis, providing compassionate and capable care for islanders in a time of community crisis. The staff, who are mostly islanders, has worked hard, and saved lives, in this unimaginable era.

We are certain that the health care district’s aim to keep these staff members in place as part of an agreement with a new provider will be its highest priority.

In the meantime, though, we have to all shake our heads at the situation. In only the last six years, working backward, we’ve seen Sea Mar, Neighborcare and CHI Franciscan Health all decide to decamp from the Sunrise Ridge clinic.

Of all of the departures, this last one makes the least sense, because Sea Mar wasn’t losing money on Vashon. Our taxpayers had the clinic’s operations covered.

Despite the extra tax burden imposed by our newly established district, it is undoubtedly good that this district now exists to help Vashon navigate the continuing chaos of the larger healthcare crisis in our country right now.

It is far above the pay grade of The Beachcomber’s editorial staff to enumerate all those failures here, but we have all felt the pain in some way or another.

That’s why so many of us were thrilled to learn in early July that VHCD was poised to receive significant federal funding to build a new clinic on Vashon, and had secured affordable land through the generosity of an island donor, to move the clinic to a site in town. It felt as if, finally, the island was going to be able to take its health care into its own hands again.

But now, as it turns out, we must first get through the current crisis.