The following article appeared in our 2014 Annual Report.
A family unable to afford dental care. An uninsured mother-to-be. A loved one suffering from depression. These are some of the people who will be helped by Gifford’s new status as a Federally Qualified Health Center.
The memo to staff was dated November 7, 2013, and sprinkled with exclamation points. It came from administrator Joseph Woodin and was entitled “A Must Read!” The message: Gifford had just been named a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC)—an event that Woodin characterized as “some of the biggest news I have ever shared with staff since working at Gifford!”
The FQHC designation is a coveted one, opening the gate to a stream of federal dollars for primary care. The funding comes from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the primary federal agency for improving access to health-care services for people who are uninsured, isolated, or medically vulnerable. Of particular interest to Gifford: support for dental care and mental health services for Medicaid patients and the uninsured.
“This assistance from the federal government allows us to develop programs for dentistry, psychiatry, and mental health that are hugely important for the community,” says Medical Director of the Hospital and Medicine Divisions Dr. Martin Johns. “It also allows us to place a bigger focus on primary care. It means we can take better care of our Medicaid patients, offering them services that we couldn’t before because of finances, and that’s huge.
“We’re finding out almost weekly that we can offer things to patients that we didn’t even know about, let alone have the capacity to apply for. The designation was designed to help small groups of physicians serving in rural communities. Our mission has always been that.” To qualify for FQHC status, a community health center must be open to all, regardless of ability to pay. It must offer a sliding fee scale with discounts based on patient family size and income in accordance with federal poverty guidelines. The federal money is intended to offset these obligations.
Over the past year, Gifford has laid the groundwork necessary to begin drawing on those funds. Among the steps: conducting a search for a psychiatrist to join the medical staff, working out agreements with area dentists to provide care to Medicaid patients, and completing a transition to electronic medical records.
“HRSA is really concerned that they make these health centers as feasible as possible,” says VP of Finance Jeff Hebert, “so there’s a lot of grant opportunity that impacts our financial stability. We get support every year as long as we keep up with the requirements.
“Probably the biggest benefit is that we get bigger reimbursement for our Medicaid patients. Reimbursement is cost-based, and not fee-based, so instead of paying a percentage of the fee for x, y, and z, the government looks at how much it costs to provide those services. It’s a better reimbursement methodology for Medicaid.” Other perks of the designation are: insurance coverage for primary care physicians and relief from staggering medical-school debt, a powerful recruitment incentive.
IF IT WALKS LIKE A DUCK
The Gifford model is an unusual one: a community health center with satellite clinics and a small hospital at its hub. As such, it provides both primary and critical care to a rural population. It would thus seem eligible for both FQHC funding and the benefits it receives as a Critical Access Hospital, a designation conferred in 2001. But would the feds see it that way?
The FQHC “duck test” was a laborious application process that involved many hospital departments and years of preparation, followed by months of waiting. With acceptance, Gifford the health center became the “parent” of Gifford the hospital—one of only three FQHC/CAHs in the country.
“Our primary-care services—which include internal medicine, family practice, pediatrics, and ob-gyn—are all part of that community health center parent,” explains Woodin.
“The concurrent designation is tremendous for us,” says Johns. “It enables us to provide the most possible benefit to the community while being a small hospital, and it protects us from a lot of the changes going around the state and the region with regard to accountable care: As an FQHC, we cannot be purchased by or absorbed by a larger organization.”
“I look at health-care reform as being primary-care focused,” says Hebert. “It’s that primary-care provider who keeps you healthy and works with you to make sure you as a patient are getting what you need. If you’re prompting that patient to come in for a physical, and to develop healthy behaviors, you’re going to keep that patient a lot healthier at a manageable level than a model that doesn’t focus on primary care. I use myself as an example of what not to do: I only go to a health-care provider when I get to the point when I’m ready to go into the hospital and that’s an extremely expensive proposition. It’s not as efficient, and you as a patient aren’t as satisfied because you’re looking at a long recovery time. By making Gifford Health Care the parent of our organization, we’ve set ourselves up for the future, and I feel we’re in a really good place.”
After eight months of administrative work, Gifford was ready to start drawing on its new funds. The first bill went out in July. “It’s probably going to take most of 2015 to really understand all the levers and dynamics,” says Woodin.
“My thanks and appreciation go out to the staff behind the scenes who made this happen. It was a huge amount of work, and yet strategically, it positions us well, given health-care reform both in the state of Vermont and nationally. It helps us to have the right focus again around primary care, taking care of Medicaid and the uninsured, and looking to build from there.”