Local public health centers in danger of closing: Kirkland needy to be impacted by possible loss of Northshore public health center

Unless the county immediately can cough up another $5 million and figure out a way to sustain their operation, it is likely that the North Public Health (located in Northgate), a dental clinic on Lake City Way and King County Public Health at Northshore (10808 N.E. 145th St., just north of Kirkland) will all close.

This is based on the 2007 budget that King County Executive Ron Sims officially will hand over to the King County Council on Oct. 16, with a final decision to be announced Nov. 20. According to public health communications manager James Apa, "The county budget is a multi-month process," where all the departments are canvassed for individual budget recommendations. Between Oct. 16 and (traditionally) the Monday before Thanksgiving (Nov. 20), the council reviews and votes on all submitted budgets. The county Web site will be updated on both of these dates: www.metrokc.gov. Look for links to executive's budget proposal.

Blow to community

It is estimated that 150 jobs would be lost and according to Northshore employee Suzanne Gordon, "This is a cost-cutting measure that would save $4.6 million and leave no access to public health care in North Seattle and the Eastside.

"The low-income people who use these clinics, which saw more than 19,000 people in the first half of 2006, will be left stranded and will force them to travel south to receive low-income medical/mental/dental care," Gordon said. "There is the real possibility that our clients will choose not to get treated at all as they have transportation issues or other obstacles in getting access to health care for themselves and their families."

Advocacy group trying to keep sites open

Gordon is part of the advocacy group "Communities for Public Health," formed in July 2006 by the staff of North Public Health as a result of a meeting with the staff from the three sites that was called by the King County Office of Management and Finance. Gordon said, "The announcement was made that a proposed budget for 2007 would be given to Ron Sims and that the recommendation would be made to close these three sites, as the public health budget office could not find the funds to close the gap to keep these sites open."

Bob Cowan, King County's budget director, states simply that "the problem is money and availability of money." Cowan said that between the swelling numbers of uninsured and underinsured and the fact that the county doesn't get reimbursed by Medicaid or other insurance, the public health budget jumped from $18 to $23 million from 2005 to 2006. The extra $5 million came from the current expense fund, which also pays for general governmental expenditures such as traffic safety, the court systems and the sheriff's department.

"The issue," Cowan says, "is our ability to sustain that percentage growth each year. Our revenues aren't growing that rapidly." He also adds that King County Executive Ron Sims "never wants to close a facility and has directed us to look for funding to keep the facilities open." However, the public health budget is currently competing with the sheriff's blue ribbon panel report on 9/11, which recommended nine priority additions to the sheriff's budget, totaling $5 million. "There are a lot of competing demands," he added.

Cowan says it costs $4.5 million to operate the two health centers for the year. The dental clinic wasn't mentioned.

Cowan said that about 40 percent of the current expense fund is comprised of property tax, with some revenues coming from new construction. He said the next biggest source is sales tax, which has been increasing at an annualized rate of about eight to nine percent over the past couple of years. "That won't last forever," he said. Moreover, property tax is limited to one percent growth per year, obviously far below the rate of inflation.

The Northshore Public Health site offers family planning services (STD/HIV testing, birth control methods, women's health (yearly paps, breast exams), counseling, an immunization clinic, a travel clinic (for shots for travel out of the country), a WIC (women, infant and children) office and vouchers for food, formula, prenatal and postpartum care.

"All three sites combined have served 80,000 people," Gordon says. "Where will they go if the proposal goes through? In the event of a large scale disaster, who will be available to assist the public?"

Rhetorical, unanswerable questions seem to be gaining ground on shoulder-shrugging answers. It shouldn't be that way.

A rally is planned for Sept. 30, 10 a.m. to noon, rain or shine, at the North Public Health Center, 10501 Meridian Ave. N., north parking lot, with music and community speakers. Information: www.seattleactivism.org/events/event2400.htm[[In-content Ad]]