Open for business

By GIB SNYDER

OBSERVER City Editor

In June of last year U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer announced a $650,000 federal Health and Human Services Department grant was secured to start a county health center.

“This is a huge win for Chautauqua County residents that will now have a federally qualified health center for the very first time,” Schumer said at the time. “Residents of Chautauqua County have long needed this center, and I applaud the Department of Health and Human Services for stepping up to the plate and providing funding to create it.”

Labeled as a “one-stop shop” for medical access to those with or without insurance, the health center – which had been in discussions and planning for five years – is set up to provide medical and behavior services to thousands in the county. The center is located in the Graf Building on Central Avenue, also the site of the North County Office Building.

The Center is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday while Thursday hours are from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Michael Pease is the chief executive officer for the Center which opened in February.

“We’ve had roughly 200 unique patients, but we average about six patients a day visit wise,” Pease stated. “Anybody can come here whether they have insurance or not. We have a sliding fee scale for those who are uninsured. Obviously, it’s based on their income and they get a discount based on their income, the number of people in their household, things like that.

“We offer a sliding fee scale, we offer all insurances. We’re currently enrolled with five of the major insurances. We have all of the paperwork done for every insurance, just some of them take a little longer to enroll it. Nobody will be charged if they come in here and they’re not insured if we’re not enrolled with their insurance yet. Other than their copay, if they have one.”

Pease said the Center is partially federally funded.

“We get a $650,000 grant, it’s a two-year grant. We’re just finishing the end of our first year, that finishes the end of May,” he explained. “Then you have to reapply for funding, assuming there’s funding available.”

Pease said the Center has not received any state or county financing but both have provided support in other ways.

“We’re working with the state and county both with agreements for people who need services that don’t have a provider to send them to us and different things like that,” he explained. “They’ve been very supportive.”

So far the Center has been getting most of its patients by word of mouth.

“The staff have done a great job telling people we’re open and seeing all patients. We do have agreements with a number of different organizations, both for us to refer out and for us to receive referrals back,” Pease explained. “We’re working with other local providers to get agreements in place to share hospital coverage and things like that. We have agreements in place for dental services and mental health. Anything that would be considered like a specialty care, we’re working on those right now, eye doctors and different things like that.”

Located in the North County Office Building with the Center are the Chautauqua County departments of Mental Health, Hygiene and Health. Pease said there is already an agreement with the Office of Hygiene and progress is being made with the Mental Health and Social Services.

“We’re already referring back and forth,” he said of Social Services. “One of the requirements that we have is anybody we work with has to be willing to accept the patients we serve regardless of their ability to pay. So that might be a big deal to some people because people might not be willing to accept uninsured patients. It creates a little bit of difficulty for us to find people to send our patients to, but by and large all of the providers in this area have been very open to working together.”

The medical staff at the Center consists of a full-time physicians assistant, registered nurse and licensed practical nurse along with a parttime medical director and a parttime physician. Along with Pease, the rest of the staff consists of Chief Financial Officer Carol Gugino, Outreach Coordinator Rebecca Ruiz and two bilingual registration staffers.

Services available inhouse include all primary care pediatrics, women’s health and family practice. There are seven finished exam rooms and five more that are nearing completion. One room is dedicated for women’s health and two are specially decorated and dedicated for children.

“It doesn’t matter what age they are, it doesn’t matter what they have, we see them here. We do a little bit of it now, but down the road we will be doing substance abuse counseling,” Pease stated. “Right now a lot of that’s covered by current staff because one of them came from an inpatient mental health unit, so she has experience doing that already. So we’re kind of covering that while we’re growing. Certainly, when we get big enough, the plan would be to have somebody here physically onsite to do that.”

Pease said the Center has agreements in place with both Brooks Memorial and Lake Shore hospitals.

“We are, in the government’s eyes because we federally funded, we have to define our service area. Our service area is actually all of Chautauqua County, so we’ve had patients come from Sherman, people come from Ripley, Jamestown, South Dayton, all over the place,” Pease explained. “Because of that we also need to have agreements in place with other organizations from other parts of the county and I’m just starting, because we’re so new, there’s a lot of work that still has to done on that matter, but we’re certainly working toward that.”

Pease said the Center will support existing organizations.

“We will draw the blood here and send it to the hospital to process because why should we do something that’s already available?” he asked. “For the ease of the patient we can get everything done here. It’s a good partnership. We’re using electronic medical records and a lot of things that are encouraged by our funders.

The plan is once we can get more providers we’ll be open Saturday mornings and more evenings, so we’ll have a range of hours for people to come in.”

Appointments are not necessary but encouraged. The Center phone number is 363-6050. There is no Central Avenue entrance.

“The best way to find the center is to come in through the main doors off the parking lot and take the elevator to the basement where the Center is located,” Ruiz stated.

Send comments to gsnyder@observertoday.com