County care clinic carries on amid evolving health-care backdrop
January 19, 2016
The health-care landscape continues to shift in Summit County, but an old standby, the Summit Community Care Clinic, persists, all while handling notable yearly growth.
The family practice sprung up in 1993 as a once-a-week, sometimes only once-a-month, medical office out of the need to serve the increasing number of those within the county without health insurance. In that first year, it saw fewer than 300 patients, whereas today the clinic now located in the Medical Office Building in Frisco accommodates 24,000 visits annually.
Health care remains a tricky proposition in the region. The Colorado HealthOp, which consistently offered the lowest premiums on the state's health exchange, Connect for Colorado, folded at the end of last year, while Kaiser Permanente made its mountain entry official with the opening of offices in Frisco and Edwards on Jan. 4. In the meantime, High Country Health Care joined forces with Centura, which runs decade-old St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, but offers with it its own set of challenges for residents.
It's why another local health-care option, especially for those un- or underinsured, is so valuable.
"I use the term medically underserved," explained Sarah Vaine, the clinic's CEO, "because I think that can mean uninsured; it can also mean Medicaid. It can mean that maybe your social- or behavioral-health issues make it harder for you to go to a traditional medical office. It doesn't mean just uninsured; it means there's barriers to access."
It's a common misconception of the nonprofit, safety-net clinic, she said, that the Care Clinic is only for those who can't afford health care. And a notion they're trying to change.
"We love insurance, we love Medicaid, we love Medicare," she said. "That mix of insured and uninsured helps us further our mission. Any time I get a chance, I say our patients are our friends and neighbors and family members. We'll see a tourist if they walk in; we don't turn people away, but that's not our market. We're here for locals."
Those 24,000 annual visits come from 7,000 unduplicated patients and at a budget of $7.2 million to support them with integrated-care services ranging from standard primary-care needs, dental, reproductive and mental health, prescription assistance and more, via about 80 members of staff. And about 70 percent of that expanding budget (approximately $5 million) comes from grants, donors and one primary yearly fundraiser — Soup for the Soul, Bread for the Clinic — in 2016 falling on Friday, March 11.
When Vaine joined the clinic in 2008, she recalled an operating budget of about $800,000 and just employees. Today, through extensive grant-writing and donor drives, she's helped grow the medical office to meet consistent growth, though that still comes with it additional challenges.
"It's never like we have an extra million, so we spend a million more on expenses," she said. "We joke that we try to make the shirt match the pants. But every year, our patient numbers continue to bump up. It's hard to grow those expenses and cover them."
A recent federal designation has also helped. By becoming a highly-sought Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) by satisfying myriad guidelines and proving communal need, the Care Clinic now receives an annual base grant of $650,000 from the government, on top of Medicaid reimbursements that help keep the lights on and continuing to meet patient demand.
Aside from the physical space on the first floor of the Medical Office Building, the Care Clinic also runs five, school-based health centers — four in Summit County and one opened last August in Lake County at the Leadville-area high school. The locations in Summit County include Dillon Valley and Silverthorne elementaries and then at Summit Middle School and Summit High School. There, patients — students and all adults — are seen for the same breadth of services available at the primary office, with special attention paid to mental and oral health.
With these same increases in demand, the Care Clinic is also in the middle of expansion of its dental unit because the department is currently booked three-to-four months out. At present, the clinic provides three dental exam rooms, as well as nine medical exam rooms and two mental-health spaces. A million-dollar build out, coupled with third-floor Medical Office Building space donated by the county government (Summit also provides the primary office at no cost), will increase capacity to seven dental spaces, and the medical practice will move from nine to 12 to offer additional care.
Still, the clinic offers services even outside its own capability. While medical imaging is not offered in the office, a deal was struck with the hospital to provide X-rays and MRIs at discounted rates, for instance, and the staff does the best it can to find necessary specialty needs or other care outside of the office.
"We're somewhat limited in the things that we might have to offer," said Dr. Jim Oberheide, who has been part time with the clinic as far back as when it opened in '93. "We spend a significant amount of time in this clinic looking for resources for people. It takes a lot of time, and we've got a good team here that does that. I think we've got a good reputation in the community for what we're doing."
Even so, incorrect impressions of the Care Clinic take time to reshape.
"There's this perception like, 'Only those kind of people would need to go to the safety-net clinic,' when our patients are small business owners, independent contractors — all the people who sort of hold up the economy in the community," said Vaine, formerly a waitress in Summit County herself for 10 years. "We have businesses that send us contributions because they can't afford insurance, and they're so grateful that they have a place to send their employees.
"The biggest thing that we're trying to change is that there's some sort of stigma associated with coming here," she continued, "and we're so proud of our model. We really feel like our care is exceptional."
As of this past July, the Care Clinic has an amended fee plan. Everyone who visits pays some amount, though it's on a sliding scale based on the federal poverty guideline. There are six fee code levels for un- or underinsured patients, where discounts range from a 20-percent discount to only a nominal fee — as little as $10 per standard visit essentially functioning as a copay. Those with various insured positions pay accordingly.
For what she believes is some of the best care regionally, Vaine thinks her staff is worth it, all with the central mission of the clinic — rooted in the social justice movement to provide medical access to those cut out of traditional care — at its core.
"We're all here because we have the sucker gene, and we're here for the mission," she said. "But, no margin, no mission, so we have to collect money. The people who we attract to work here, I have not been able to find more committed, passionate people about providing medicine. I'm biased, but I feel like we have such an amazing team of really committed, mission-driven professionals."
To view business hours, schedule an appointment or to offer a donation, visit the Summit Community Care Clinic's website at http://www.summitclinic.org, or call (970) 668-4040.