PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center will close a 37-year-old program that serves chronically ill and disabled adults in Whatcom County at the end of 2014, surprising and upsetting the family members who care for them.
Called Adult Day Health, the program’s services include skilled nursing and occupational therapy, social and activity groups, hot lunch, and programs for those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
The aim is to help people stay in their homes and out of more expensive care, such as nursing homes, and to provide a break for their family caregivers during the hours the clients are in the program, which is in PeaceHealth’s South Campus in Bellingham.
PeaceHealth will stop operating the program Dec. 31. It has 78 clients. Of that total, 60 have some form of dementia.
Clients were notified via phone and through a July 25 letter.
“I spent the day in shock and then I got busy trying to figure out what we can do about it,” said Betsy Gross, a Bellingham resident whose 71-year-old husband John has Alzheimer’s disease.
PeaceHealth said it, and other medical providers, were facing “huge financial challenges” caused by costs associated with implementing Obamacare, a drop in patients over the past three years, and “reimbursement challenges with fewer privately insured patients.” The medical provider also spent $98,000 subsidizing the program last year.
“There is a constellation of circumstances that really underscore the need for hospitals to reduce their costs,” said Chris Phillips, PeaceHealth community affairs director.
PeaceHealth is the largest medical provider in Whatcom County and operates the only hospital here.
In 2013, PeaceHealth also said that it planned to close its outdated South Campus and, earlier this year, the Bellingham City Council removed a tax exemption for the religious health-care provider. Starting in 2015, Catholic-affiliated PeaceHealth must begin paying the city an estimated $1.2 million a year in business and occupation tax.
All those factors led PeaceHealth to review its programs and services at the South Campus, representatives said.
“We concluded the best thing to do would be to seek a community partner and transition the services,” Phillips added of Adult Day Health.
The July 25 letter noted that Lynden-based Christian Health Care Center, which PeaceHealth called a “community partner,” planned to begin providing Adult Day Health services next year. Still, clients were unhappy.
Bellingham resident Varya Fish said she felt “total dismay” when she learned of the program’s closure in Bellingham. Her 79-year-old husband Bud has Alzheimer’s.
“It’s a burden of love, the momentum of our 52-year marriage is carrying me through this. It’s not easy,” Fish said. “I need respite. I need some time off, too. It’s like being with preschool children 24-7and never having a break.”
She praised the staff for their care and also the program for how it has helped her husband.
“I know this program is good for him because he’s happier,” Fish said. “He’s just more with it. He’s not as depressed seeming. He’s just more engaged.”
Ferndale resident Glen DeVore, whose 75-year-old wife Madeline has dementia, said he was surprised that PeaceHealth would close its Adult Day Health program.
“I think they’ve been in operation about 30 years, give or take a little bit,” DeVore said. “You kind of presume that it’s sort of like the hospital itself, that it’s always going to be there.”
Worried caregivers, including Gross and Fish, and others have formed a task force and are pushing to keep the program going in Bellingham. A PeaceHealth representative is on the task force, as are members of the Alzheimer Society of Washington.
“This program has been a lifesaver for hundreds of families over the years — a safe haven for their loved ones and a respite for them who are committed to 24-hour care for their loved ones. Without a program like this, many of these patients would be in institutions as most suffer from dementia of some type,” said Jayne Freudenberger, who helped start the task force and is co-advocacy chair of the League of Women Voters Bellingham/Whatcom County.
The league advocates for basic health care and promotes public awareness about assistance needs, according to Freudenberger.
Barring being able to convince PeaceHealth to reconsider, which doesn’t seem likely at this point, task force members are working to shorten the gap between when the PeaceHealth program ends and when Christian Health Care Center builds its facility in Lynden to serve this population.
Christian Health Care Center and PeaceHealth also are negotiating to keep the service going on a temporary basis, representatives for both said, although that agreement hasn’t been finalized.
“Nobody wants to see this go away, and I mean no one,” said Anita Tallman, director of Christian Health Care Center. “We’re in discussions with the hospital, trying to find a way to eliminate the gap in service.”
Last year, PeaceHealth said it hoped to move all of its services from the South Campus by the end of 2014.
“That timeline is being extended for a number of reasons,” PeaceHealth representative Amy Cloud said. “Among them is our desire to work in partnership with Christian Health Care Center to extend the date for Adult Day Health to remain on South Campus so that we can bridge the six-month gap between the original date of ADH closure and the date when (Christian Health) will be able to open their program.”
Tallman, who also is on the task force, said that if all goes well, the Lynden nursing home hoped to open its new Adult Day Health program in June.
But it still must file an application with the Lynden Planning Department.
Tallman said she learned of PeaceHealth’s plans to close the program a couple of months ago when she called to let it know that Christian Health planned to start a program because its area was under-served.
“It was never our plan to replace the Bellingham program,” Tallman said, before adding: “Christian Health Care wants to do whatever we can to help clients of Adult Day Health in Bellingham who are struggling with this change in services.”
Tallman said Christian Health will be able to serve those who went to the program in Bellingham because the Lynden facility will be able to accommodate 60 people a day, seven days a week.
Still, some advocates said that having such a service in the north county and the south county would be best, expressing concern about having their loved ones travel farther to Lynden, even if transportation is arranged for them. They hope to find another provider to keep the service in Bellingham, and criticized PeaceHealth for not reaching out to the community before deciding to close.
“I do think it needs to be a community conversation,” Gross said.
Fish and Gross were pointed in their criticism.
“It seems very hard-hearted,” Fish said. “It seems like a betrayal.”
“I disagree with their decision,” Gross said. “The way they did it lacks integrity from beginning to end. It makes me so mad that they (PeaceHealth) are pretending they are doing this compassionate thing when all they did was take advantage of a coincidence,” she said, referring to Christian Health’s plans.
To which Phillips responded: “I don’t understand the betrayal. Over the last year we’ve been working with a number of providers in the community and seeking partners to ensure we can transition the program. And then Anita contacted us, said they were building a facility and we felt relieved that there was a local provider. And one that we felt very comfortable with because of the quality of services that they provide.”