New health center aims to broaden care

BRISTOL — Since 2005, the Bristol-based health care advocacy group Five Town Health Alliance, or 5THA, has sought to provide broader and cheaper primary care to Addison County residents.
Beginning next week, the organization will take its biggest stride yet in accomplishing this goal, as it teams up with Mountain Health Center to create a new non-profit health center in Bristol.
“The idea is to provide health care for everyone: people with Medicare and people with Medicaid, people with insurance and people with no insurance,” said Dr. Marian Bouchard, a Mountain Health physician. “It’s to ensure that no one is denied health care in the community.”
After failing to secure $650,000 in federal funds last year to establish what’s known as a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), activists from the 5THA and physicians from Bristol’s Mountain Health Center took matters into their own hands. With financial help from the Vermont Legislature and federal match money, the private practice Mountain Health Center is reincorporating as a nonprofit under the 5THA umbrella.
While the new center won’t technically be an FQHC, officials say it will serve the same goals, and they are calling it an “FQHC look-alike.” The center aims to provide health care to anyone who needs it, said Bouchard, who has spearheaded Mountain Health Center’s efforts with the 5THA to apply for FQHC and FQHC look-alike status.
On Monday, Martha Halnon — a Bristol native and seasoned health care professional — will take hold of the reins as director of operations and finances for the health center (still called Mountain Health Center), a new position that will help guide the center as it becomes a nonprofit and FQHC look-alike. On Sept. 1, the Mountain Health Center will then move into a space in the Bristol Works business campus on Munsill Avenue and begin the process of expanding into its new shell as an affordable health care center that also offers dental and mental health services.
Halnon to guide new clinic
BRISTOL — Next week, Bristol’s Martha Halnon will begin guiding the Mountain Health Center in its transition to a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) look-alike, which will offer broader health care to Addison County residents (see related story Page 1A).
 Born in Porter Hospital in 1957, Halnon would go on to work for the hospital in 1994. The Bristol native became vice president of Porter Hospital’s Practice Management, overseeing all of Porter’s various practices. After 13 years at Porter, she moved out to California for a year to start a new dermatology practice with some doctors in California.
“But I quickly found I belong in the east coast,” she said. So after helping the practice boot up a laser rental business, she moved back to Vermont.
Halnon then took on the role as the billing service manager for Primary Care Health Partners, the largest privately owned primary care organization in the state.
After four years working for PCHP, and several years volunteering for the Five Town Health Alliance, she’s ready to make a big impact in her hometown, taking on the lead role at a new health center that is looking to make major waves in a rural pond that desperately needs more extensive primary care.
“It’s all very much home for me — Porter, Bristol and Mountain Health Center,” she said. “I’ve been a patient at Mountain Health Center for as long as I can remember.
“Being right in my own community and being part of Mountain Health Center — the way they do business with such warmth and the great staff they have — and being able to offer more services to the community and giving that feeling of safety to people around here is such an incredible opportunity. I feel grateful and excited and honored to be able to work here.”
Rep. Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, who chairs the House Health Care Committee, has been involved with the 5THA since its inception. He commended those activists and health care providers who have persevered through adversity to bring this new health center to the community.
“While people in roles like the one I have in the Statehouse and on the federal level might stall on unmet needs in our community, we know that there’s something people can do about it,” he said. “Those activists who said, ‘We’re going to take it on. We’re going to do it ourselves,’ deserve a huge credit for making advances in getting people access to the health care they need.”
And primary care is something that Addison County desperately needs. A survey this spring showed that every Porter Hospital primary care practice in Addison County was closed to new patients.
The $650,000 that the 5THA and Mountain Health Center sought to establish an FQHC in Bristol would have paid the way for a new dental clinic and mental health clinic. Furthermore, once the center achieved FQHC status it would have also enjoyed added benefits like enhanced reimbursements for Medicaid and Medicare beneficiaries, better drug prices and access to a range of grant and loan opportunities.
As an FQHC look-alike, the center will enjoy many of the same benefits of an FQHC, and the new status will improve the center’s future chances of becoming an FQHC — something that officials still aim to achieve. The enhanced reimbursement rates will help the center offer care to those who need it, and a sliding-scale of subsidies will help pay for those patients that meet income eligibility guidelines. But unlike an FQHC, the center won’t receive grants to subsidize care for the uninsured, and it won’t have access to a large pool of grants and loans to improve the center.
The process to becoming a look-alike also contrasts greatly with that of becoming an FQHC. Foremost, it’s not competitive. The federal government will work with a center to make sure that it meets all of its requirements. But that’s no simple task, said Nancy Marnellos, chair of the 5THA. It must conform to a set of criteria, she said, such as having a director and outreach worker, qualifying as a nonprofit, and offering dental and mental health services.
The Legislature allocated part of the a $250,000 fine paid by United Healthcare Insurance Co. for failing to file proper advertising paperwork to help the Bristol center — and two similar centers in Randolph and Arlington — meet the requirements of being an officially designated FQHC look-alike. Then, with a 60-percent federal match, the Bristol center was allocated a total of $110,000 to get its ducks in a row, roughly the same amount that the other two organizations in Randolph and Arlington were given.
“That $110,00 made it possible for us to make the application,” said Marnellos. “If we didn’t have that money, we wouldn’t be able to have all the things in place to make the application.”
That money will help pay for Halnon’s salary, the cost of moving to Bristol Works, renovations and other startup costs — what Marnellos said would have left the center with an $80,000 deficit, according to her calculations.
At the end of September, the center will file its application for look-alike status, said Marnellos, and the center will look to hire more health care providers. Without the FQHC funding, the center will offer dental and mental health services, but those services will be limited and the center’s leaders aren’t sure who will fill those roles at this point.
Fisher, who was credited with the idea of using funds from the health insurance company’s fine, hopes the three new FQHC look-alikes will help provide better care to Vermonters and reduce their health care costs.
“On a health care financing level, we know that front-end services — primary care — really help prevent much more expensive care down the line,” he said. “The more we can treat people on the front end — early diagnosis and early treatment — the more we can avoid the most expensive care that happens when people don’t get to the doctor.” For more information on the new Mountain Health Center, head to mountainhealthcenter.org. Reporter Andrew Stein is at [email protected].

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