Coalition presents first public hospital district town hall

The first of four planned town halls hosted by the Coalition for Orcas Health Care was held at the fire station in Eastsound on Nov. 30. More than 60 people packed into the meeting room to hear what coalition leaders had to say about the proposed public hospital district that will be voted on in April 2018.

“We, as a coalition, are committed to the concept that all Orcas Island residents should have access to medical care from the clinic and the provider of their choice,” Dale Heisinger of COHC said. “All the residents of Orcas Island should be able to choose the physician they want and those clinics should get support from all of us … If we’re going to be asked to pay taxes we ought to be able to have that choice. It shouldn’t be directed at just one clinic.”

Heisinger, along with JoEllen Moldoff, Tom Eversole, Art Lange and Anne Presson briefly gave presentations on the history of COHC, rural health care, what the coalition stands for and how the governance of a public hospital district would operate. The coalition was formed about a year ago by a dozen community members concerned with the future of health care on Orcas following Island Hospital severing its contract with the Orcas Medical Center. UW Medicine took over management of the clinic this past September and has stated that without a major funding source, its time on Orcas will be limited.

“We recognize that neither the medical center nor Dr. Shinstrom’s (Orcas Family Health Center) practice could survive without outside funds or without philanthropic donations – hundreds of thousands (of dollars) annually. It’s very difficult to achieve in any predictable way annually that kind of money, so there’s a tremendous amount of variability,” Heisinger said. “We concluded that a public hospital district would provide a new solution for an old problem, enabling us to generate funds to provide health care services to all Orcas Islanders.”

According to Lange, there are 58 public hospital districts in the state of Washington. Fourteen of those districts are not associated with an actual hospital but with clinics. One of the districts is on Lopez Island, where voters overwhelmingly approved the measure in April 2017.

In April 2018, Orcas voters will be deciding whether to accept a public hospital district formation and who the commissioners of that district will be – should it pass. The filing period for candidates is Feb. 5-9, 2018.

The elected commissioners would be tasked with deciding the tax levy rate. The maximum amount allowed by law is 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

“You need to know exactly what the candidates stand for and who you’re willing to support,” Lange said. “We believe that it is entirely possible to achieve the goal for substantially less than 75 cents. But it’s up to the commissioners to determine that.”

This first meeting was held to provide a place for community members to ask questions, make comments and get answers about the proposed district and the position of the COHC. It was attended by representatives from both UW Medicine – Orcas Island Clinic and Orcas Family Health Center.

“We support the tax district,” said Aaimee Johnson, office manager of OFHC. “We get about $23 for a Medicaid patient … It costs us $105 to see one individual. Thirty percent of our patients are Medicaid and 50 percent are Medicare. We get $60 from Medicare for our patients, so we lose $130 for each patient on average.”

Several times throughout the meeting it was mentioned that there was some misunderstanding that the public hospital district would only benefit UW Medicine. Lange made it resoundingly clear that any existing clinic that offered primary, urgent and after-hours care would be eligible to request funds from the hospital district.

The coalition will host a second informational meeting from 5:30–7 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 18 at the American Legion. On Wednesday, Jan. 24 from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Eastsound fire station, the coalition will host a town hall titled, “Public Hospital Districts: How Do They Work?.” Finally, on Wednesday, March 13, there will be a chance for the public to meet the candidates for the hospital district commission from 5:30–7 p.m. at the Eastsound fire station. For more information about the PHD and town halls, visit https://www.coalitionfororcashealthcare.com/.

“We’ve been so lucky here – incredibly lucky that generous donors have ponied up hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to support our primary and urgent care,” Lange said. “It’s not reliable. They die, they leave. Other people come in and don’t necessarily have that one as a priority. We have to decide as a community: do we want a sustainable, predictable revenue source to guarantee that all the members of this community and all the practices are supported? That’s what we stand for.”