Legacy MultiCare health clinics closing in Pierce County

A long-established clinic network, Multicare Urgent Care system, will see its demise in mid-January.

The original four clinics, founded by a small group of family physicians in the 1980s, were known as Redi-Medical Centers in the Tacoma-Pierce County area. They were purchased by MultiCare Health System in 1994.

Over the next 20 years the urgent-care network expanded to King County and grew to 10 clinics by 2014. The mission was to open access to communities in need of care after hours, on weekends and when regular primary care clinics were not available.

Many South Sound primary care providers trusted this group of clinics and would refer patients there. In time, they filled an important niche between primary care and the emergency room.

In many ways, these clinics became a fixture and standard of healthcare in the region, treating many conditions often seen in the ER and relieving pressure on overstressed emergency departments.

Each of the 10 clinics adapted over time to fit the unique needs of the communities they served. This fit with the MultiCare mission and vision at the time of being a community-based, not-for-profit organization, focused on local healthcare needs.

In 2014, MultiCare leadership changed direction with the arrival of its new CEO and his vision for the mission of urgent care. He favored faster paced, retail-style clinics and developed the new Indigo (or “individuals on the go”) clinics, as the most desired model for today’s patients.

The existing clinics became known as “legacy” clinics, signaling that they were dinosaurs, destined for extinction. However, for the staff and providers, “legacy” was a level of service worth fighting for.

MultiCare Leadership felt that customer experience was more important than the actual services provided. Integrating with other healthcare services was no longer a priority. Staff and equipment were removed to reduce costs but limited the Indigo clinics’ capabilities.

Profits drove these changes and “retail” medicine is now replacing more comprehensive, collaborative care that many have come to expect and appreciate.

The 10 clinics have slowly dwindled over the past several years and now the last three clinics — the three that have served the most vulnerable communities — will be shuttered on Jan. 15. The fight for the “legacy” healthcare system is now nearly over.

What will this mean for the communities these clinics served? MultiCare continues to open new Indigo clinics in areas with a higher reimbursement mix that allow for higher profits. When this happens, it makes it more difficult for low- income or underserved communities to access care.

(Meanwhile, Indigo clinic staff held a two-day strike last week to protest COVID-19 working conditions.)

MultiCare has made no effort to replace the last legacy clinics in Auburn, Lakewood and Spanaway. The administration has provided no direction for patients or communication to staff as an alternative to these services.

Once these last clinics close, the closest care for many patients will be higher cost (and longer wait times) of emergency rooms.

For the staff and providers like me who are finishing the care and work they have enjoyed for so many years, the future is uncertain. Some may stay with MultiCare in other roles. For others, the direction of retail medicine and the delivery of this type of care are not why they chose medicine as a career.

Ultimately, the loss to communities will be great. For those of us who built careers here and have been so honored to serve the communities in which we live, we would like to say “Thank You” to the patients who put their trust in us.

Tacoma resident Scott Voelpel is a physician assistant, working for MultiCare since 2003 and in the legacy clinic system since 2007. He has worked in all 10 clinics at one time or another, currently in the Lakewood clinic.

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