By Ken Smith
Ten years ago the state approached the Eastern Aleutian Tribes (EAT) to assist Whittier in financing and operating its struggling community medical clinic. Through the aid of federal grants acquired by EAT, the clinic was able to remain open.
The EAT board agreed to maintain funding and assist in the operation of the clinic for two years; however, now eight years beyond that commitment, and facing cuts in federal funding, the board informed the city two months ago at a city council meeting that it can no longer afford to pay for the clinic beyond February 2012 when they’re contractual obligation ends.
“Ten years ago the clinic was struggling financially,” said Michael Christensen, Executive Director and CEO of Eastern Aleutian Tribes, which operate eight clinics across the Aleutian Islands and in Whittier. “The state approached us to help the clinic in the city of Whittier. They needed help to build and operate a clinic. Our board made a two-year commitment 10 years ago. Then last year, we did an analysis and found that we had spent $1.2 million over the last four years and this year we will spend about $380,000.”
The budget as reported by the clinic from October 1, 2010 through May 31 of this year is $215,081 provided by EAT grant support and $23,936 from patient revenue. In 2010, the total budget was $377,580, 2009 $324,827 and in 2008 $405,256. Patient revenue during that time was $36,068 in 2010, $47,818 in 2009 and $51,470 in 2008.
Christensen said that EAT is losing hundreds of thousands dollars a year operating the clinic, and with congress passing a deal this week to raise the nation’s debt ceiling while implementing sweeping cuts to reduce federal budget deficits, EAT is bracing for severe cuts to its federal funding, leaving a vast hole in the operating budgets of the clinics it operates.
Christensen said the board now needs to focus on the clinics that immediately serve the communities in the vast island chain 500 miles west of Whittier, and that the time has come for residents and community leaders of Whittier to step forward and pay for their own clinic.
“As of today, I haven’t had anybody come to me and offer even $10,” he said, expressing his frustration in what he considers a lack of commitment from the community. “There has been no communication.”
Christensen said meetings were held last November with Mayor Lester Lunceford and the city manager; they met again in May along with the management of the Begich Towers where the clinic is located.
Following those meetings, Christensen did not have any further communication with city leaders.
Finally, at a city council meeting two months ago, Christensen announced that the EAT board had decided to end funding for the clinic if the city did not come forward with a plan and money to assist in operating it.
Since then, the community has been discussing the plight of the clinic and its future. City councilman Dan Blair said a petition was signed by 100 people in support of the clinic—a significant portion of the population of 160 residents.
“We received a petition of 100 community members that basically wanted to voice their concerns for the clinic,” said, “and I thought that was a very strong sign of community support for the medical clinic.”
When told of the petition, Christensen reiterated that community support is one thing, but it has to be backed by a financial commitment.
“Over the last four years there has been no contribution and funding provided of any kind,” Christensen said. “We’ve had to rent space in the Towers, and the management of the building was upset because we were on the wrong floor. They wanted us on the first floor or on the fifteenth floor. We’re on the third floor.”
Christensen added that in the other communities where they operate clinics, significant contributions are made.
“We have other communities that pay the rent for clinics, pay for staff, get funding for furniture and equipment,” he said. “Those are the contributions we get from other communities. They are committed to having a clinic, but I have not seen that from Whittier, but I believe that a clinic is needed there.”
As Mayor Lunceford attended a ceremonial ribbon cutting for the completion of the second phase of Shotgun Cove Road, this reporter asked him about the clinic and what commitment financially the city may provide.
He answered that the first step is to form a healthcare task force like they did ten years ago. He said there’s also been talk of raising the mill rate from 5 to 8 mill, but that has to wait until the October election when it will be put on the ballot for a vote.
As for any immediate financial assistants, he said he could offer housing units for visiting physicians.
“I suggested that the city of Whittier not charge for two units. That would help some.”
Otherwise, the mayor said he doesn’t believe it’s the fiscal responsibility of the city to pay for the operation of the clinic.
“Right now it’s not the city of Whittier’s responsibility to keep the clinic open,” he said. “If we try to fund it, it will cost us $375,000.”
He said funding for the clinic would have to come from a combination of state and local support as well as federal grants.
Christensen said the city could have gone a long way towards paying for the clinic had it only set aside one-tenth of the federal money used to pay for the Shotgun Road project—a project that has cost $18 million to build four miles of road.
He emphasized that what is needed to keep the clinic running is a financial commitment from the community, but first they need to put together a transition plan. He said EAT is willing to work with them to apply for future grants, but first he needs to see some effort and commitment from the community.
But time is not on the clinic’s side, and the community of Whittier needs to begin the process now, Christensen said, and show that they want to keep the clinic open.
“There were public comments at the city council meeting, and people said they appreciate the clinic,” he said. “I remember one comment that ‘the city doesn’t like to pay for anything.’
“There are new federal cuts coming, and we have to be prepared. We have to know if they are committed. If the community is willing to step up and say here’s the money we’re willing to spend to have a clinic and willing to contribute in other ways. These are the real issues. Not that ‘we want a clinic.’ It’s their clinic. It’s not about me closing our clinic.”