On February 24, the Heartland Health Center saw its first patient. CEO Terri Ford-Wolfgram says they’ve seen 250 more in just over two months of operation – numbers they expected.
“Much like small town, we go to our hometown doctor – that’s really what we are is a medical clinic, a medical home for people,” she says.
Ford-Wolfgram says most of their patients are from the tri-cities, and about 80% of them are uninsured. That’s the local void they were planning to and now are helping fill.
The HHC takes all insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid, and uses sliding fees for those without insurance. It’s a system they say provides service for as many people as possible.
“If they don’t meet the criteria for the sliding fee, we try to work with them on payments, people just can’t afford sometimes to come in and put down what the cost of an office visit is,” says Ford-Wolfgram.
Across town, the director of the Third City Community Clinic, Susan Aguilar, says that’s a common issue locally. In 2013 they saw 3,552 patients at least once, and handled over 5,000 office visits. As a free clinic, they provide care for low-income families who have no insurance and no way to pay, so when HHC can’t help someone, they call on Third City.
“The federally funded clinic does charge – they don’t do anything free, so if there’s somebody who’s down on their luck that have no money to even pay a minimum payment, they refer over here,” says Aguilar.
Aguilar helped get HHC started, and still serves on its interim board. She says its operation lets Third City refer their patients who do get insured to more providers, freeing up their own resources.
“Our physicians and our dentists are volunteer and they don’t want to be treating patients that should be using their insurance and getting help that way,” she says.
But Aguilar says Third City serves Hall, Hamilton, Howard, and Merrick Counties, while the need for affordable health care spreads beyond those borders.
“We only serve four counties – I get calls daily from people in Buffalo County, Adams County, Sherman County, and they need help and they’re looking for a low-income clinic,” says Aguilar.
The clinic leaders say that’s where Heartland Health Center comes back in – while most of their patients are from the area, a federal clinic takes everyone.
“Omaha has several [federal clinics], Lincoln has one, there’s one in Norfolk, one in Columbus, and one in Scottsbluff, and then us, so we don’t turn people away if this is where they want to come for care,” says Ford-Wolfgram.
Both clinics say it’s a good system, and as low-income patient needs rise, they’ll keep working together to close the health care gap.
“It works well and hopefully we’ll be able to take care of the community as a whole that way,” says Aguilar.
Health officials say getting people in the right programs to help pay for care or medicine is key for them. HHC has an Outreach and Eligibility worker to help check into insurance options, disability applications, and patient-med programs, so patients can afford the care they need.
Right now, HHC is only providing medical services through a full-time nurse practitioner and part-time doctor, but they still plan to work in dental care in the next year or so.