The Kitsap Public Health District board July 11 declared high healthcare costs and insufficient access to healthcare a public health crisis.
A resolution cites the many barriers Kitsap County residents face when seeking healthcare, including high and unpredictable costs, inadequate insurance and shortages of providers and services, a KPHD news release states. The barriers contribute to poor health outcomes and disproportionately affect people in different racial and ethnic groups, people with limited incomes, people with disabilities, and additional populations that have historically been excluded from the healthcare system.
Data shows Kitsap trails state and national averages for access to emergency care, urgent care, primary care and some specialty services, including obstetrical, maternal and mental health care. Gaps in services have been widened by strains on the local healthcare workforce and lingering impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The resolution was reviewed by the Health Board’s Policy Committee in June. Board members Greg Wheeler, mayor of Bremerton, and Dr. Michael Watson, a practicing family physician, presented the resolution to the full health board at its regular July meeting.
“The whole idea behind this is putting down in words the magnitude of this crisis as far as a strained workforce, the costs and diminishing access to services,” Wheeler said, noting the resolution provides clarity as the board works to address complex healthcare issues. “Without goals, we waste time, energy and money.”
Watson added: “Our goal is to call attention to the circumstances in the region and commit to finding a plan forward and a way to avoid worsening circumstances in the community. It will take the entire community.”
The resolution commits the health board and KPHD to advancing a public health approach to address healthcare costs and barriers. Last winter, the health district contracted with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security to conduct a review of Kitsap’s healthcare system and recommend strategies for improving access for all Kitsap residents. Board members said they expect the crisis resolution will help guide actions taken in response to findings from that study, which will be completed in December.
“We do have a health care crisis. We all know it,” said Poulsbo mayor Becky Erickson, who chairs the board. “We need to push those resources toward this as deliberately, as accurately, and as thoroughly as we possibly can in order to improve the conditions in this county, period.”
Nearly all counties in Washington state, including Kitsap, are designated geographic Health Professional Shortage Areas by the Health Resources and Services Administration, KPHD documents state.
The 2023 Kitsap Community Resources Needs Assessment confirmed that cost and access to healthcare services are significant issues in Kitsap, with community members from nine of 10 focus groups reporting barriers to accessing healthcare and identifying access to healthcare as ongoing challenges.
In addition, 58% of the 1,916 survey respondents were very (17%) or somewhat (41%) worried about paying medical bills. The board has received testimony from local healthcare professionals that maternity obstetrical care delivery systems are severely strained. The 2022 Kaiser Family Foundation Health Care Debt survey found that four in 10 adults nationally have health care debt. “The likelihood of having healthcare debt is not evenly distributed and disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous, People of Color and communities of limited economic means,” documents say.
KPHD data shows that in 2020-21, 6.5% of adults in Kitsap reported delaying medical care due to cost.