County aims to help un­der­in­sured

The Covington News - - Front page - By Gabriel Khouli gkhouli@cov­news.com

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 physi- cians, 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

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

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.

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