Neighbors and Providers Fight Closure of Providence Therapy Pool

The hospital says the pool will be too expensive to repair – but some say the hospital will get more money by replacing it with a day surgery center

September 6, 2012 -- Nine years ago, Sue Moen retired early from her job as an elementary school teacher. She'd been diagnosed with a rare, degenerative neuromuscular condition, and couldn't be on her feet all day anymore.

Told that she would eventually become unable to walk, Moen decided to take control of her health, and fight as hard as possible for her mobility. Walking long distances and maintaining her balance are a challenge for Moen, but she can still walk the short distance from her home to the therapy pool run by Providence Health System at Northeast 47th and Burnside, where she swims and takes exercise classes several times a week.

Moen takes “ai chi,” which is like an underwater tai chi class and focuses on core strength and balance. While many people who use the pool are recovering from orthopedic surgery or are pregnant – the pool has offered exercise classes for pregnant women since it opened 20 years ago – many people also live with permanent disabilities or chronic conditions. The pool offers discounts to Providence members, and is also open to the general public.

“The majority of us are there many days a week to maintain a lifestyle, to keep ourselves out of wheelchairs, to keep living. It's quite a serious thing for most of us,” Moen said. According to her physical therapists, Moen’s strength has increased since she started taking classes at the pool.

Now Moen and other patients are mulling other options in the face of Providence's announcement that the pool will close November 30.

“The pool is in need of more than a million dollars in repairs and upgrades to continue safely serving patients and the public. With that in mind, our staff members have investigated many options,” said Providence public relations representative Jean Powell Marks. Starting December 3, Providence will consolidate its water therapy services at the Easter Seals pool on Southwest Macadam.

“This pool is operated by Providence and we currently offer therapy sessions there for our rehabilitation patients,” Marks said. “In addition, some community classes also will be offered at the Macadam location. Our staff members have found that a number of community pools located in east Portland offer similar classes, as well – and we will provide a list of those pools and classes to those who are interested.”

But traveling to the Easter Seals pool – located in Southwest Portland – may not be an option for everyone, said Stefanie Krasner, who volunteers at the pool, assisting residents of the Providence Center for Medically Fragile Children during exercise classes.

None of the children Krasner works with are able to walk, and a majority cannot speak, and many live with chronic pain, she said.

“This is their one chance where they can float and be free,” Krasner said, adding that a van trip to Southwest Portland may not be feasible. “Here, they're basically in their back yard. To take this pool away from them is an absolute disgrace.”

Dr. Bruce Becker, the director of the National Aquatics and Sports Medicine Institute at Washington State University, has been involved with water therapy since 1986, when he started working with injured Olympic athletes and said those who used water therapy recovered much more quickly and conclusively than those who didn't.

Becker said interest and research on the benefits of water therapy has grown dramatically since then, but the practice has been around long before the development of sports rehabilitation surgery. Becker himself had polio as a child, and received water therapy, though the practice was relatively unknown at the time.

“It's, physiologically, remarkably benign,” Becker said. “If I had a drug that had the same number of benefits with so few side effects, I would be able to live pretty much anywhere I wanted with as many houses as I wanted.”

Insurers don't always see it that way, and the payer mix (i.e. the number of Medicare or Medicaid patients versus patients with other insurance) using a pool can have a big impact on whether hospitals consider their continued operation sustainable.

Christin Huja attended pregnancy exercise classes at the Providence pool when she was pregnant with her daughter, and now serves on the board of the North Tabor Neighborhood Association, which said it was “broadsided” by Providence's announcement. Many neighbors didn't know about the closure until an elderly man attended one of their neighborhood association meetings in tears, pleading for the group to do something to keep the pool open.

Neighbors did plan a protest during Providence's Bridge Pedal fundraiser, though Huja noted many pregnant women, seniors and people with disabilities were unable to attend because of the heat – and many don’t use the Internet, so they can't sign the online petition to keep the pool open. Thus far, the petitioners have gathered just over 1,000 signatures.

During the Bridge Pedal protest, protesters accused the hospital system of being hypocritical by encouraging one form of preventive care – biking – while limiting people’s access to the pool. Other people who are fighting the pool's closure have speculated that it’s being taken down because the hospital receives a higher reimbursement rate for the day surgery center – which will replace it.

“There's no way to influence them or have them change their minds, but it's a huge loss for our neighborhood,” Huja said.

Image for this story by Mike Barwood (CC-BY-NC SA 2.0) via Flickr.

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