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Posted: January 16, 2011 12:30 a.m.

County aims to help underinsured

Newton County officials believe they could receive federal stimulus money to open a health center in the county that would be able to more efficiently serve residents who have Medicaid or are uninsured.

Before stimulus money would be available, the county needs to hire a researcher, at a potential cost of anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, to prepare a study detailing the current and future health care needs in Newton County. Federal money is only available to communities that can prove they have a need for a center.

The study would not only allow the county to apply for stimulus money, but would also provide the hospital and Newton County Board of Health with data to prepare for future health needs.

Because of the county’s explosive growth, Newton County has seen an increasing number of uninsured and underinsured residents. Unable to turn to the primary care physicians, also known as the family doctor, many of those residents are using Newton Medical Center’s emergency room as their doctor’s office, costing themselves and the hospital money.

According to data from Newton Medical, the number of emergency room visits has increased from just more than 18,000 in 1993 to around 43,000 in 2010. In a letter to the county, Newton Medical CEO Jim Weadick said that only 41 percent of ER admissions were emergencies and 71 percent of patients had some form of insurance.

"We are absolutely the 'safety net' for all people in a medical crisis," Weadick said in the letter. The hospital requested $4 million on the 2011 SPLOST to pay for an emergency room expansion.

The hospital has a "minor care" center in its emergency department to handle non-emergency cases, and there are some free clinics in the area, including the Willing Helpers Medical Clinic at Solid

Although a health center is not a free clinic, it is a community resource that is designed to serve everyone on a sliding scale fee, said Dr. Lloyd Hofer, director of the East Metro Board of Health, in a Dec. 21 e-mail.

Dr. Henry Patton, chairman of the local board of health, said the promise of a health center was the main draw, but heath needs assessment would be a benefit to the community.

"During the last few years, we’ve had some physicians that formally did mainly Medicaid-type practices who have left the community or retired," Patton said Friday. "I personally feel there is a deficiency for the Medicaid population in primary care."

Patton said he felt the study would also help the hospital identify the needs of the community, whether that is placing more primary care physicians out in the county or recruiting specific specialists.

"(There are doctors here in Covington), but what about over on Salem Road and in other parts of the county? There may be groups of people who are going far away for primary care. This can help direct recruiting for the hospital too; they can see where the greater needs are," Patton said. "If people are going to go somewhere else, why? What can we do to serve them better?"

Weadick said the success of a center will depend on convincing residents to use it, and he said they’ve become accustomed to going to the emergency room, because it’s a known commodity. In addition, one of the difficulties is in recruiting primary care physicians. The hospital already spends a great deal of effort to recruit doctors and other medical staff.

"(Residents) know they will get seen by a doctor and they’re going to come in here. If there was a Federally Qualified Health Center and it didn’t have physicians on site, they may still choose to go to hospital," Weadick said Friday.

One benefit of a federal health center is that the federal government reimburses doctors who serve at a center at a higher rate for seeing Medicaid patients than a normal doctor.

Weadick said the hospital would support a study and would be interested in the results, but did not plan to contribute to the cost of the study.

"What you plan for today may not be in reality what materializes, but a plan is better than just stumbling along," he said.

Newton County Chairman Kathy Morgan said the cost of a study will vary depending on its scope.

"The more detailed, the higher the cost. If we decide to move forward with this study, I will contact our local and state partners to provide a list of vendors to quote a price," she said in a Friday e-mail.

District 3 Commissioner Nancy Schulz has been a big proponent of the story and said a health center could also help out the school system and other bodies. She said many parents who can’t afford health care send their kids to be treated by the school nurse, when a primary care doctor is needed.

"With high unemployment, there are a lot of people not getting medical insurance," Schulz said in a Dec. 20 interview. "Things like hypertension and diabetes are treatable, but these people have to seek treatment."

Patton said he hoped the county could get a study conducted within the next six months.

ock Baptist Church, at which area doctors volunteer on Thursdays.

 

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