Questions began to fly as San Juan County residents were informed by a Seattle broadcast news station that its only insurance company was leaving. KIRO 7 aired a segment by investigative journalist Jesse Jones on June 3 about the ongoing Kaiser denials of air ambulance flights, which ended with his announcing that Kaiser was withdrawing from the county.
“The outcome of this fight will affect everyone who lives in the islands,” county emergency services Medical Director Michael Sullivan said in a Facebook comment in the Orcas Island Rant and Rave group prior to the segment airing.
County council member Rick Hughes confirmed with the Journal that Kaiser Permanente, the only insurance available to county residents from the individual marketplace, will be leaving effective January 2020. Residents with Kaiser will remain covered by the company until the end of the year. Those who purchased coverage from the individual marketplace will need to enroll in a new health plan during the open enrollment period Nov. 1 through Dec. 15.
The segment went on to say that LifeWise, an insurance company owned by Premera, would be moving into the county to replace the vacating Kaiser. In a KIRO broadcast aired the following night, Jones spoke with Washington’s Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, who said that his office will vet LifeWise to ensure that coverage problems do not persist with the new company.
In January, a pattern started to emerge with several Kaiser customers receiving a payment denial for their emergency medical air ambulance evacuations off island. Kaiser began denying the flights from patients in the San Juan Islands in September 2018, according to an Island Air representative. There are two emergency air evacuation providers in the islands: AirLift Northwest and Island Air Ambulance.
According to AirLift Northwest Executive Director Chris Martin in April, her company had submitted 33 claims to Kaiser for trips it has flown since Jan. 1, and they were still waiting for determinations at that time. In January, an Island Air Ambulance representative said the company had 20 outstanding denial claims from Kaiser.