'Devastated': PeaceHealth makes cuts to palliative care

Decision to reduce services for seriously ill a broken promise, critics say
May 16, 2023 at 1:06 p.m.
Karen Lerner sits at the kitchen table of her Bellingham home. She has been a PeaceHealth palliative care patient since her cancer diagnosis two and a half years ago. Lerner is switching to remote palliative care through Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center because PeaceHealth is reducing its program on May 26. "That was devastating to me," she said.
Karen Lerner sits at the kitchen table of her Bellingham home. She has been a PeaceHealth palliative care patient since her cancer diagnosis two and a half years ago. Lerner is switching to remote palliative care through Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center because PeaceHealth is reducing its program on May 26. "That was devastating to me," she said. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

PeaceHealth in Whatcom County is ending comprehensive outpatient palliative care on May 26, reducing staff to one nurse and one social worker for in-home care of seriously ill patients. 

Criticism of the decision has been harsh, with some patients and observers saying it goes directly against PeaceHealth’s mission.

“This community, Whatcom County, has really been a leader in serious-illness and end-of-life care for the past decade, and I just feel like they cut us off at the knees,” said Marie Eaton, whose title is community champion at the Palliative Care Institute at Western Washington University.

Eaton and others, including retired PeaceHealth physician Meg Jacobson, who was board-certified in palliative medicine, said PeaceHealth broke a promise when it decided to cut palliative care after convincing donors to give more than $2 million to launch the program several years ago.

“PeaceHealth had assured us that we would keep it going,” Jacobson said. “And they just lied. I don’t know what they’re telling donors.”

In a May 16 statement to Cascadia Daily News, Bryan Stewart, system vice president for PeaceHealth’s Home and Community Division, said the health care provider couldn’t justify continuing the program, given the high cost of palliative care.

“On average, insurance reimbursement only covers 15–20 percent of the palliative care program costs,” Stewart said. “With rising costs across all service lines, it was simply not feasible to continue offering the comprehensive outpatient palliative program.”

Eaton said she understood PeaceHealth’s financial difficulties, but “the decimation of the outpatient palliative care program is particularly disturbing.”

“We raised millions of dollars with the promise that PeaceHealth would take it over in five years,” Eaton said. “I frankly feel betrayed.”

Stewart said the PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center Foundation received a single, $1.25 million gift to launch the outpatient palliative care program, with an additional $1 million contributed by community members. 

Stewart confirmed PeaceHealth had made a promise — with a caveat.

“The Foundation was clear with donors at the onset that PeaceHealth’s commitment was to support the palliative care program beyond the five-year Foundation investment, understanding that as the program evolved over time, operational changes might be necessary,” Stewart said. “Unfortunately, the stress caused by the pandemic on our health care system, coupled with under-reimbursement, high program expenses and relatively low number of patients served, led to the recently announced changes.”

In a recent review of its programs, PeaceHealth also decided to close its allergy clinic and overnight sleep lab.

A patient’s story

Karen Lerner was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma two and a half years ago, after doctors found a bleeding tumor in her brain. She learned about the cuts to palliative care on a recent phone call with her pharmacist.

“That was devastating to me and, I’m sure, to them,” Lerner said, referring to the palliative care workers who supported her. “It’s an amazing team of care providers and volunteers that can’t be replaced, as great as my personal care physician is.”

Palliative care goes the extra mile for patients who are in extreme circumstances. PeaceHealth’s program cared for people diagnosed with cancer; chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD; congestive heart failure; and those who “graduated from hospice,” Eaton said.

Lerner was an unusual case. The side effects to her treatments included painful reactions that even made certain clothing unbearable. 

“My doctor says that I’m an outlier, but my skin hurts all the time,” Lerner said. Her palliative care pharmacist, nurse and physician “have been really good about never giving up, in terms of trying to find the best medication regimen for me.”

“A normal pharmacist, [primary care physician] or oncologist, they don’t have the time or the ability to really look into things and help solve problems.”

Lerner said PeaceHealth staff couldn’t tell her where to turn for comprehensive palliative care after May 26. She considers herself fortunate, however. She lined up remote palliative care through Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, where she has been receiving her cancer treatments. 

“There are so many people who are isolated and don’t have the resources that I do, that are just going to fall through the cracks with this, I’m sure,” she said.

After the cuts to palliative care, Eaton predicts that many of the patients currently in the program will begin to cycle in and out of the emergency room. 

“One hundred people is too much for one nurse and one social worker to manage,” Eaton said. “To be able to stay in your home and have your symptoms managed by a social worker, nurse, physician and chaplain means your quality of life is so much better.”

Stewart put the number of in-home palliative care patients at 64. He also emphasized that cancer patients will get additional care. An oncology physician assistant, he said, will “focus exclusively on the palliative care needs of this vulnerable population.”

PeaceHealth’s mission

Eaton said that palliative care may not be a money-maker for a health care provider, but it can be a money-saver. 

“It gets people into hospice sooner, where they can be covered by Medicare,” she said. “It reduces the number of [emergency department] visits.”

Jacobson also acknowledged that palliative care places a financial burden on health care systems, noting that they can’t bill for the services of a social worker or a chaplain.

“And doctors who do palliative care don’t see enough patients to make money for the institution,” Jacobson said. “So it was always going to be something that they were going to have to commit to, as a mission-driven service.”

PeaceHealth’s mission statement, posted online, says, “We carry on the healing mission of Jesus Christ by promoting personal and community health, relieving pain and suffering, and treating each person in a loving and caring way.”

Lerner, a cancer patient, took a dim view of the statement.

“The ironic thing, if you look at the PeaceHealth mission statement, it’s supposed to be for the care and relief of pain and suffering,” she said. “Instead, it’s more like, ‘for-profit, tax-exempt.’ That seems to be their mission.”

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