Care clinic could use more patients, funding

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The Memorial Hospital's Moffat County Care Clinic is treating slightly more patients this year but the clinic's director still wonders if the word is out about its services.

Suzanne Frappier, TMH's chief nursing officer, said she thinks many people don't know about the clinic, which treats uninsured patients.

The clinic is located at the north end of TMH. It opens four hours a day on weekdays.

According to hospital officials, the clinic is treating about 2 percent more patients this year.

"I'm sure there's a population that doesn't know about it," said Frappier, who considered putting brochures in grocery stores to increase awareness about the clinic.

The services are often called "indigent care" but Frappier said she prefers to call it "charity care."

"It's not just about poverty," Frappier said, noting that many people above the "poverty line" still cannot afford insurance.

Clients go through a screening process to make sure they qualify and many patients, according to Frappier, pay nothing for treatment.

Based on income, some patients pay fees as little as $5.

More than a decade ago, the Visiting Nurse Association was confronted by frustrated patients who were not able to pay for "pretty basic care," according to Hospital Administrator Randy Phelps.

The VNA collaborated with local doctors to establish a clinic for indigent patients one night a week. The VNA estimated about six patients per week would visit the clinic. But Phelps said when the clinic became available, many more patients showed up. The program rapidly expanded until the VNA could not continue to provide the service.

In 1994, TMH teamed with the county to continue the clinic under the hospital's direction. Since then, the county has given $39,600 each year to fund the program.

But the clinic costs more than twice that. In fact, TMH annually spends more than $50,000 subsidizing the clinic, according to Phelps.

The clinic treated more than 500 patients in the first half of 2003.

The hospital administrator said not only is the clinic part of the hospital's mission, but it offsets expensive emergency room treatments because patients see a doctor sooner than if no charity care existed.

"This is the most cost-effective way to take care of that population," Phelps said.

Nationally, 75 percent of ER visits are for ailments that should have been taken care of in a physician's office, Phelps said. The clinic is an effort to "provide care in a more appropriate clinic environment as opposed to the ER."

Phelps also noted the ER is seeing more patients with more severe ailments, indicating doctors are treating milder afflictions before patients need the ER.

Phelps said while the clinic's mission is close to his heart, he doesn't know how much longer the hospital can subsidize it.

Sagging financial performance may bring an end to the longstanding program.

"We have less profitability," Phelps said. "The $50,000 comes out of profits generated by other sources of business."

Recently, those profits have disappeared.

No formal discussions yet suggest discontinuing the clinic's operation, but Phelps said, "We need to try to get grant support and chip away at the deficit."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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