Mat-Su

Wasilla community health clinic will close due to financial troubles, CEO says

Sunshine Community Health Center

A Wasilla community health clinic that has served thousands of patients since it first opened in early 2021 will close down at the end of October.

The clinic closure was announced in a letter signed by Sunshine Community Health Center’s CEO, Joshua Gilmore, who cited financial troubles as the reason.

Gilmore, who was hired by Sunshine in July, said Tuesday that the decision to close the clinic was “incredibly hard” but necessary.

“Unfortunately, when I got here, we were able to determine very quickly that it was not financially sustainable. And that in fact, it was so unsustainable that if we didn’t close it very rapidly, then the remainder of our organization — our other two clinics — were at risk of closure as well,” he said in an interview.

Sunshine is a federally qualified health center that offers medical, dental and behavioral health services on a sliding scale to uninsured or minimally insured patients who might otherwise be forced to seek care in a hospital emergency room.

The center started in Talkeetna in the 1980s through a grassroots effort to establish affordable health care for the remote communities of the upper Susitna Valley, far from the borough’s only hospital near Wasilla.

Now Sunshine operates clinics in Talkeetna, Willow and Wasilla. The Wasilla clinic, the newest of the three, began serving patients in January 2021.

ADVERTISEMENT

Across its operations, Sunshine employs about 100 people, including four doctors, two dentists and five behavioral health specialists.

At the Wasilla clinic, there are currently around 30 staff members, 1,800 established patients and a total of 4,200 unique patients seen since the clinic opened.

Gilmore said that the other two clinics that Sunshine runs, in Talkeetna and Willow, would remain open. The Wasilla clinic’s last day of seeing patients is scheduled for Oct. 28.

Current patients are able to call a “closure hotline” that was set up to help with the transition at 907-352-1313.

Gilmore said that the current plan involves helping patients transition to other lower-cost health providers in the area, and that current patients could call the clinic for referrals or advice.

“I’m actually feeling very hopeful that these individuals are going to be able to transition fairly smoothly. I’m working with these other providers in that region to do everything we can to ensure that there is additional access made for these individuals,” he said.

The closure came on the heels of a leadership shake-up last year that followed reports of safety concerns and mismanagement within the corporation.

Less than six months after the Wasilla location opened, Sunshine Community Health Center placed then-medical director Dr. George Hightower on leave due to confidential patient concerns.

Shortly after, Sunshine’s board terminated then-CEO Melody West following employee concerns about the way she handled her job, including complaints about the medical director and potential patient safety issues.

Kathy Watkins, a former board member, said she resigned from the board shortly after those concerns were brought to light.

“I didn’t want to be part of the the insanity that was going on there, to be perfectly frank,” she said during a phone interview Tuesday.

Watkins said that although she has not been privy to recent board actions, she believed the clinic’s closure was related to those incidents.

“There was so much money that was spent inappropriately. So yes, absolutely this has to do with what took place last year,” she said.

Gilmore had a different perspective.

“I think this was just a decision that was made in the best interest of trying to increase access to care. And unfortunately, at the end of the day, it just was not sustainable,” he said.

• • •

Annie Berman

Annie Berman covers health care for the Anchorage Daily News. She's a fellow with Report for America, and is a graduate of the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. A veteran of AmeriCorps and Vista volunteer programs, she's previously reported for Mission Local and KQED in the Bay Area.

Sponsored