When the newly elected commissioners of the Vashon Health Care District were sworn in a year ago, no one suspected that weeks later a global pandemic would break out.
COVID-19 has complicated and hampered almost everything the district has done this year to stabilize health care in Vashon. The virus was largely responsible for the commissioners' most difficult decision to date: Our November 18 vote to set a tax for 2021 at a level that means fewer dollars for the Vashon Park District under Washington's complex property tax law.
This decision was not taken lightly and was made to ensure our highest priority: continued access to medical care on the island for the coming year.
In hindsight, however, we find that we were not fully transparent because we did not have time to discuss with the Parks District and did not allow public input before action. The reasons for our rush do not excuse this, and we recognize that we must do better in the future.
Here's how the pandemic forced our hand:
- Due to the timing of the district's establishment, we were unable to collect a levy in 2020 and won't see significant levies of $ 2021 until the end of April. To do this, we had to work with funds from King County to keep the Neighborcare-operated clinic open through October instead of closing. Now we have to borrow more than we expected because of the subsidies from the Sea Mar Community Health Centers. As with all debt, it must be repaid.
- We expected a robust response when we reached out to regional health systems in May to ensure basic services on Vashon. However, our request came out when these systems were feeling the economic impact of COVID and unable to take the financial risk. We did not receive a response, although it was believed that the situation would be different without COVID. By the end of the year we had no prospect of a clinic.
- We eventually reached an agreement with Sea Mar, but the required annual subsidy of $ 1.5 million was much higher than we expected last year. We took the risk of entering into a contract with them to ensure the island was not lacking in medical care in the midst of a pandemic. We knew that if the clinic closes and our providers and staff leave, it could be years before a new clinic opens, and at a significant cost.
- When we started budgeting at the end of October, we were intensively looking for ways to set a budget for 2021 and a levy at a level that would not affect the Parkviertel. However, we have determined that there is a risk of not being able to cover our negative cash flow for Q1 2022 without additional income. We felt it would not be fiscally responsible to keep borrowing more, and we realized that increasing the levy for 2021 was our most responsible way to ensure the district's solvency and the clinic's financial security.
With this in mind, we would like to assure the island that we have a new clinic operator who is committed to working with us. Sea Mar has heard our requests for extended hours and day care for acute illnesses and plans to resolve them.
You have hired a new full-time doctor, Dr. Tom Erdmann, an island resident. He joins ARNP Burdett Rooney, Dr. Wesch and Dr. Hanspetersen. We are very grateful to the vendors and employees who continued to support Vashon because of this uncertainty.
While many people are cared for outside the island, there are still laboratory tests, illnesses and injuries that can be treated without leaving 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 from the island for care. There are still people who prefer to have a provider that is a member of their community.
We feel very responsible for ensuring that medical care is available amid a pandemic. Vashon's COVID numbers are rising, and many COVID patients need follow-up care long after they recover. However, we would also like to work with other districts and all parties involved to meet the needs of the island in difficult times.
There are a lot of unknowns around 2021. This is a one year contract with terms and conditions that will be reviewed next fall. We hope the clinic will do well and require fewer subsidies. In the meantime, 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 for the Vashon Health Care District.