Island eye care trimmed

"The choice of eye doctors for some 5,000 Group Health enrollees on Whidbey Island was narrowed recently. To one. In Anacortes, it's been narrowed to none.The result is that local health care professionals are wondering if access to health care on Whidbey Island is being sacrificed to corporate - as opposed to community - considerations.We're not talking about open-heart or neurosurgery here, said Whidbey General Hospital Chief Executive Scott Rhine. Eye care is a basic health care service and we believe those services should be available on Whidbey Island.Ophthalmology services were twice as available on Whidbey until a couple of weeks ago.That's when Eye Care Washington, a sub-provider that contracts with Group Health, informed Coupeville ophthalmologist Dr. Mark S. Cichowski that it was shrinking its provider network and Cichowski was no longer part of it.Cichowski was unavailable for comment.Eye Care Washington is a group of ophthalmology specialists who provide eye care for about 55,000 Group Health enrollees in northwest Washington. Normally Group Health would contract with ophthalmologists directly, but in this case it felt it needed more expertise, Rhine said. Consequently, if Whidbey ophthalmologists want to treat Group Health patients, they have to sign a contract with Eye Care Washington.It's been mutually beneficial, said Mark Donaldson, network regional administrator with Group Health. We contract with Eye Care, who then represents our network.But that network has been shrinking lately. Besides Cichowski, a group of ophthalmologists in Anacortes recently dropped out of Eye Care/Group Health's network because of reduced reimbursements offered to them.For Whidbey residents, that means seeing Oak Harbor Dr. Terry Lee, Whidbey's only eye doctor, or driving to Mount Vernon for ophthalmology care covered by Group Health.Donaldson said Group Health is concerned about the recent events but feels the access to eye care is still adequate. He also said the decisions were not based on profit margins.This is not just another greedy HMO trying to line their pockets, he said. We wanted to make sure we'd still have adequate access.Rhine isn't so sure.Eye Care Washington feels there is adequate access, Rhine said. I do not believe so.Even Donaldson conceded that one eye doctor might not be able to handle the case load on Whidbey and would put pressure on the community.I would probably agee that for the entire island, it's probably not enough, he said. But for Group Health Cooperative one ophthalmologist is adequate for our network.One way to ease that pressure, he added, would be if Whidbey Group Health enrollees who felt otherwise called the HMO.We would address it through Eye Care Washington if enough people complained, Donaldson said.Rhine hopes Group Health takes a proactive approach rather than waiting for patients to complain.I'm hopeful Group Health and Eye Care can work this out and see the need for another ophthalmologist on Whidbey Island, he said. We've been working for years to ensure we had sufficient ophthalmology coverage on Whidbey Island. Now we have one."

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