During the fiscal year that ended in October, Monroe County Hospital gave away $1.1 million in uncompensated medical care.
A sizable amount of that, hospital officials figure, was to uninsured patients who came to the hospital’s emergency room seeking non-emergency — and sometimes even routine — care.
“Emergency rooms all over the country are deluged with people seeking primary care,” said hospital CEO Kay Floyd.
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“They don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Greg Dent, CEO and president of Community Health Works, an area nonprofit.
In Monroe County, they do now.
Last month, the hospital opened a new clinic, Monroe Primary Care, to provide a new “access point” for the uninsured, while at the same time lowering costs and freeing up emergency rooms for heart attacks and other real emergencies.
“We want to relieve the emergency room of the non-emergency patient so those resources can be spent on the patients who need that emergency care,” said Floyd.
The uninsured accounted for almost one-fifth of the 120 million hospital-based emergency department visits in 2006, according to data released this summer by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The same care is much more reasonably priced than if you have an emergency room-trained physician taking care of a sore throat,” Floyd said. “Until now, they’ve had to go get care in what is the most expensive point of care.”
The office is not a free clinic. Patients are charged based on their abilities to pay according to a sliding scale using federal poverty guidelines. And the clinic is not just for the uninsured. It accepts Medicare, Medicaid and coverage from all the same insurance companies as the hospital.
The clinic is also not just for urgent visits. In addition to treating episodic illnesses and minor injuries, the office provides a range of services that include chronic disease management, complete physical exams, immunizations and women’s health care.
“Basically everything you can find at a primary care physician, you can find here,” said clinical director Tammy Barnett, one of two board-certified family nurse practitioners who provides care at the clinic.
‘CONTINUITY OF CARE’
Funding for the clinic, located at 235 Medical Court in a former doctor’s office, comes from a $625,000 Emergency Room Diversion grant, obtained by Community Health Works through the state Office of Rural Health.
The money paid is not only for renovations but also for supplies and staffing for two years, after which time the clinic must be self-sufficient, officials said.
The clinic features five exam rooms, as well as a lab for on-site testing. Community Health Works also has a staffer, Glenda Fowler, in-house for a prescription assistance program for patients. “There’s a good bit of paperwork involved,” Fowler said.
The clinic is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, but plans call for extending hours until 8 p.m. two days each week.
Since it opened Sept. 15, the clinic has seen more than 230 patients, both uninsured and insured.
“We’ve had a good mix,” said Barnett.
Drs. Jeremy Goodwin and Stephen Taunton Sr. serve as the clinic’s medical directors and can be called in for consultation when needed.
“We could throw a rock to both of their offices,” said Floyd.
The hospital is just across the street, so patients easily can be referred there in case of emergency or for hospitalization.
Floyd said the emergency room serves about 25 to 30 patients a day, but that number should go down once more people learn of the clinic.
“Until we opened this center, the ER was the primary access point to care. We have a lot of physicians here, but there’s certainly a need for an access point for the uninsured,” she said. “With these hard economic times, some people don’t have $50 or $100 to pay up front to see the doctors.”
The clinic sees patients age 2 to “end of life.” Barnett said she and fellow family practitioner Patti Hill want to establish physician-patient relationships just like in any other doctor’s office. That “continuity of care” will lead to better health outcomes, she said.
“They’re not waiting until the last moment, when they’re in dire straits,” said Barnett. “We want to provide a medical home for those patients who otherwise would not have one.”
Christine Wynn of Forsyth usually drives to Coliseum Northside Hospital in Macon when she needs treatment. She was at the clinic Monday for a follow-up visit after seeing Barnett the previous week.
“I was feeling bad, and I didn’t feel like I could drive that far,” she said.
Wynn said she got “excellent” service and would use the clinic again.
“I sure will, and I’ll recommend others.”
To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.