Since the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) closed its Medicare-certified home health department in Sitka last September, many Sitkans have publicly opposed the change — through a petition with over 600 signatures and a participatory listening session good in November, which SEARHC did not attend. This week, for the first time since the shutdown, community members shared feedback directly with SEARHC administrators. This reaction is unlikely to bring the department back.
Cindy Litman was one of 15 Sitkans who testified at Wednesday’s meeting of the Community Health Council, which advises SEARHC on how to best serve the Sitka community.
“I am saddened that SEARHC closed its Medicare-certified home health office,” Litman told the virtual room of about 60 people, placing a photo of her late husband on a Zoom screen. “My husband, Tony Guevin, was a recipient of Medicare certified home health services from 2017 until his death in 2019. It was only through the unique skills and services of home health that we were able to stay in Sitka and that Tony was in able to stay at home for the last two years of his life.”
Almost all of the testimony focused on the closing of the Medicare-certified home health department in Sitka last fall. While SEARHC has maintained that the new “home care” program provides equivalent services, Litman — and many others testifying — said the programs are not the same.
“I really don’t know if SEARHC really doesn’t understand the difference between Medicare-certified home health and the health care they’re providing through the clinic, or if they really are being deliberately untruthful,” Litman said.
Wednesday’s meeting represented the community’s annual opportunity to share feedback directly with SEARHC. This meeting is written into the charter developed when SEARHC purchased Sitka Community Hospital in 2019 and requires “a portion of the Council meeting to be open to the general public for input.”
Some community members felt that the structure of the meeting, which was virtual and a testimony limited to 15 Sitkans for three minutes each, did not meet the spirit of this request. In her testimony, Krisanne Rice said the Zoom format, in particular, prevented some Sitkans from participating.
“I’m in a Zoom meeting on an iPhone sitting alone while Jim is upstairs, and I’m person number 14 of 15, reading my notes to give you testimony about the services in Sitka,” Rice said. “Your customers are limited to a once-a-year opportunity to share concerns. I have the technology and some of the skills to zoom in, but I know people in Sitka who don’t, and so you’ve eliminated them.”
Other audience members joined the conversation after the Council spent nearly half an hour responding to the first three minutes of testimony. Community member Lisa Busch wrote, “If this is the only time all year that (only 15 members) the public has to speak, it might be better for the committee to listen and save time for public comment.” A few minutes later, the chat was disabled and another community member asked the organizers to reopen the chat.
During the two-hour meeting, community members echoed many of the sentiments expressed at the November forum — that home health had provided extremely important services to their families and that the new program would not fill the same niche.
Despite continued public pressure, SEARHC has shown no interest in revising its decision. Council member Susan Padilla, who was appointed to the council at the same meeting, asked SEARHC Chief Medical Officer Elliot Bruhl if restoring the home health department was on the table, given community input.
“You know, with some of the communications and all the signatures and everything, has anything been thought of to say, maybe the community really wants a home health department?” Padilla asked.
Bruhl’s answer was clear. “Not at this time.”
Disclosure: KCAW employee Fred Olsen, Jr. is a member of the Sitka Community Health Council.