The drive between Merrill and Bonanza is a pleasant one. You might get slowed down if you get stuck behind a tractor on the narrow county roads, but the views are beautiful and you pass many charming farmhouses and cows out to pasture. Some people wave in a neighborly way as they pass by.
It’s a good drive to get some thinking done, and Michael Sheets has had a lot on his mind recently.
Sheets, a registered nurse practitioner, drives from his Klamath Falls home to the Merrill Clinic and then to the Bonanza Clinic almost every day. The tiny clinics have been open since 1996.
The clinics don’t provide surgery or any major procedures, only primary care, medications and X-rays. Patients say they love having the clinics available because they have low costs and prevent them from having to drive the distance to Klamath Falls for care.
The clinics were built by members of the community who donated their time.
“It’s always been a community thing,” Sheets said.
Every patient interviewed by H&N swore that Sheets is the best when it comes to their care, and they wouldn’t ever want to go to anyone else. Some have been seeing Sheets for decades. He’s seen some families for multiple generations, and he says he will happily continue to serve the communities as long as he is able to.
An email from Lisa Mallett from the Oregon Health Authority to the Bonanza Clinic triggered a campaign aimed at saving the clinics from closing down.
The email states, “I am not sure what the future brings for the Bonanza & Merrill Clinics if Michael Sheets does not contract with Cascade Health Alliance. I hope for the best, but I have concerns between you and I.”
Mallett’s words have sent Sheets and the communities he serves into a panic.
“They want to run me out of business,” Sheets said. “We just want to be able to continue to help people.”
The community has rallied behind the clinics, insisting that they must stay open.
Cascade Health Alliance, the region’s Coordinated Care Organization, has been attempting to contract with Sheets in order to allow more patients to be covered at his clinic, but Sheets doesn’t want to contract with CHA.
“I’ve been in negotiations with them for 18 months and they want to destroy me,” he said.
Sheets said he’s happy with the number of patients he has now and has no interest in contracting with CHA.
A spokesperson for CHA said that if Sheets does not contract with them, nothing will change for his clinics, he will simply not get the added patients that he could get if he does contract.
Because Sheets is not contracted with CHA, patients can only use their Oregon Health Plan coverage at Sheets’s clinics through a program called OHP Open Card. If Sheets contracted with CHA, patients would be able to use their OHP coverage there without Open Card.
The spokesperson said that CHA is not trying to shut down the clinic at all, and if he chooses not to contract with them, the spokesperson said people could simply continue using Open Card.
“We believe in the value Michael Sheets provides to our Klamath County community,” states a letter from CHA.
“CHA has made tremendous efforts to partner with these providers, but unfortunately, if providers are disinclined to collaborate, our members may have to travel for services. CHA has negotiated in good faith and made extensive attempts to meet the provider’s request. We believe in the value of the services the provider delivers to members in rural Klamath County,” A CHA letter states.
After receiving the email from Mallett, Sheets has grown distrustful of OHA, CHA and Sky Lakes Medical Center.
“Sky Lakes and their administrator have a total monopoly of medical care in our community and want total domination of our local health care system, taking your choice away forever,” Sheets wrote in a letter entitled “call for help” which he distributed to the community.
Paul Stewart, president and chief executive officer of Sky Lakes, responded to the accusation in a statement to H&N.
“While we applaud his dedication to small communities, Mr. Sheets’ accusation that Sky Lakes Medical Center influences Oregon Health Authority enrollment rules or clinic choices for Medicaid patients is totally inappropriate,” Stewart wrote.
“Concerns regarding Coordinated Care Organizations (CCOs) or other state health policy decisions should be directed to the Oregon Health Authority,” Stewart continued.
Access to care
Sarah Kelber, communications officer with OHA, sent H&N a statement regarding the situation. Mallett could not be reached directly as she is on medical leave.
“The Oregon Health Authority takes concerns about access to care seriously. We are looking into the situation with Mr. Sheets and are grateful to the community for bringing it to our attention. We want to come up with a resolution that meets the needs of the community and its Oregon Health Plan members,” the statement reads.
H&N asked Kelber if the email from Mallet means that Open Card is in danger, or that not contacting with CHA could have a negative impact on Sheet’s clinic.
“We are taking a look at the communications between OHA and Mr. Sheets as well as the current status of his exemption. We look forward to a positive resolution for the community and its OHP members,” Kelber wrote in response.
In a letter from the Mayor of Bonanza, Betty Tyree, she states that the entire city council supports Sheets.
“The town of Bonanza is extremely worried about losing our rural health clinic and pleads to OHA to not forget rural Oregon and allow Michael Sheets to continue seeing Oregon Health Plan members through Open Card,” Tyree wrote.