The solitude that comes with living in the San Juan Islands is one of the many reasons people choose to live here. There’s a certain special feeling that comes from having to cross a body of water to make a visit to the “real world.”
The isolation has its benefits — relatively low crime, less traffic and fewer people (in the winter, at least). However, it also comes with its fair share of drawbacks — late and expensive ferries, tourists in the summer (who we do appreciate though!) and a high cost of living.
Another disadvantage of island life is limited access to a higher level of medical care. With only one island having an emergency room, and even that being insufficiently equipped when it comes to extreme cases of trauma or illness, islanders roll the dice with their health at stake and hope that an emergency doesn’t arise.
When it does, we have options. Both Island Air Ambulance and Airlift Northwest offer memberships to help alleviate the cost of an off-island medical transport. But that reduced price is only if your insurance approves a claim of being flown off the island.
Along with limited medical access, health insurance options have diminished over the years with just a single carrier remaining to provide commercial coverage: Kaiser Permanente. Now, the company has said it is leaving the county by January 2020 after it denied more than 20 claims for coverage on emergency medical transport of island residents.
Having previously worked for a health insurance provider, I’m terribly disappointed that Kaiser is not taking into consideration the unique circumstances surrounding medical emergencies in the San Juan Islands. I am also frustrated with the apparent lack of investigation by the Washington State Office of the Insurance Commissioner regarding the claims that Kaiser denied. According to Mark Tompkins of San Juan County Health and Community Services, the insurance commissioner only overturned six of the 20 denied claims. We don’t feel investigators took into account the severity of the medical emergencies and the difficulties of getting from a ferry-served island to a higher level of medical care. Now, these patients are on the hook for thousands of dollars.
Islanders aren’t all rich and famous people seeking to avoid the spotlight. We’re waitresses, construction workers, cashiers and house cleaners. We’re all trying to live where life has placed us and, yes, we may need special considerations when it comes to medical insurance. We’re not trying to scam the system or defraud companies out of money. We’re simply trying to survive.