Sea Mar Community Health Centers is offering a golden opportunity to Vashon Island.
• Sea Mar plans to continue operating the Vashon Clinic without needing any of the $1,100,000 property tax dollars that the Vashon Healthcare District (VHCD) was planning to give to them for 2023.
• Sea Mar is eager to move forward promptly with constructing a new clinic building and has the finances in hand to do it. Sea Mar has a lot of experience building modern attractive clinics.
• The new Sea Mar building will likely include a dental clinic and affordable housing. The medical and dental services will all be provided by Sea Mar without regard to the ability to pay. It is very difficult for many of our residents to afford medical and especially dental care; a sliding-scale Vashon dental clinic would be awesome. And we sure could use more affordable housing.
• Sea Mar is agreeable to having Vashon Island VHCD as future owners of the building should Sea Mar ever leave the Island.
• Our current healthcare clinic situation is good. Islanders are generally happy with the Sea Mar clinic, the clinic staff and leadership are exceptionally good and happy with Sea Mar, and Sea Mar is running the clinic well.
• Sea Mar Community Health Centers is an incredibly successful mission-driven non-profit organization. For 44 years, they have been focused on the kinds of services that Vashon needs; they don’t run hospitals. They are deeply committed to a mission of providing high-quality care regardless of the ability to pay and have more than 90 medical, dental, and mental health clinics. Their annual budget is $400 million. They have never left any of the 50 communities where they have clinics.
• The alternative of finding a new clinic operator has many unknowns. It would likely result in a period without services at the clinic with resultant harm for islanders. Building our own building would take five years, likely need ongoing high VHCD property taxes, and is very unlikely to include a sliding-scale dental clinic or affordable housing.
Following the Vashon healthcare clinic issue has been roller-coasterish recently.
Actually, it’s been quite a ride for a while. We have had four different organizations running the clinic in the last ten years. We cannot afford to operate our own medical clinic, so we need to find the right big-enough-but-not-too-big partner to run it efficiently and sustainably.
After Neighborcare announced they were leaving, VHCD worked heroically to find a new clinic operator. Sea Mar came to our rescue. To their credit, Sea Mar recently said they needed $400,000 less subsidy from VHCD for 2023.
Recently, VHCD asked for some new contract terms for 2023 to assure certain healthcare goals were met.
Sea Mar felt that VHCD wanted to get too involved in clinic operations. I believe VHCD had reasonable but not essential requests.
Sea Mar collaborates with many community organizations but doesn’t run any of their other clinics in conjunction with a healthcare district and isn’t used to having their autonomy challenged. Sea Mar decided they couldn’t satisfy VHCD and announced they were leaving Vashon. Many of us gave Sea Mar encouragement to figure out a way to stay.
Last week, Sea Mar amazingly stated not only that they were going to stay but that they would cover the anticipated $1,100,000 deficit themselves!
One concern that VHCD has is that Vashon needs to have control over healthcare on the island. For many years, off-island organizations have been running our healthcare clinic. We have never had control of these organizations in any meaningful way before or since the institution of VHCD. And we’ve never been able to keep them from leaving. And they have all provided good service and have never done us wrong except for sometimes leaving precipitously.
A related belief is that the island should own the clinic building to have control over what happens. Vashon has essentially owned the Sunrise Ridge clinic building (literally owned by the nonprofit Sunrise Ridge Health Services) for a long time, and that didn’t keep Franciscan, Neighborcare and Sea Mar from leaving.
Some worry this could be like the Vashon Community Care debacle. But if Sea Mar ever leaves the island, we will own the new building. Finding a new operator for VCC is a great challenge. It is even harder than us finding a new clinic operator which we have successfully done before and could do again if necessary. And we have VHCD to provide a subsidy for a new clinic operator.
What about the VHCD and the property tax rate that was necessary to support the $1.5 million subsidy for Sea Mar?
I suggest that the VHCD work out ways to provide input to Sea Mar. And that the VHCD substantially reduce its property tax rate, and focus on supporting other healthcare nonprofit organizations and unmet needs.
Baruch Roter, MD is a family physician who fills in occasionally at the Sea Mar Vashon clinic and has been graced with living with his family on Vashon for 19 years.