Bristol clinic lands $812,500 grant to expand service to the needy

BRISTOL — A six-figure federal grant announced last week will enable a Bristol medical clinic to expand its services, particularly to low- and moderate-income residents in Addison County.
The Five Town Health Alliance was awarded $812,500, which will be put toward expanding services at the Mountain Health Center in BristolWorks complex. It was one of three practices in Vermont that were designated as “community health centers.”
Martha Halnon, executive director of the Five Town Health Alliance, was ecstatic about the possibilities that the new funding will enable.
“The difference this is going to make is that it will lower the barriers to access primary care,” she said.
Mountain Health Center, which is incorporated as a nonprofit under the Five-Town Health Alliance umbrella, provides access to primary and preventative health care services, including medical and behavioral health care for people of all ages.
The number of patients at the clinic has been steadily increasing since it moved into its offices in BristolWorks a year ago.
“We’ve been growing on a daily basis since we moved last fall,” Halnon said. “We’re getting 20-50 new patients per month.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., was instrumental in securing the federal money.
“As chairman of the Subcommittee on Primary Health and Aging, I am proud we have seen in recent years a tremendous increase in the number of community health centers in Vermont,” Sanders said in an interview last Thursday.
“One of the great crises facing Americans right now is the lack of access for primary health care,” he continued, citing a Harvard University study that found that 45,000 Americans die every year because they are unable to see a doctor.
The funds were appropriated by the federal Department of Health and Human Services as part of the Affordable Care Act. In addition to the Bristol health center, this past Thursday’s announcement also noted that Gifford Medical Center in Randolph received an $812,500 grant and the Battenkill Valley Health Center in Arlington received a $775,000 grant.
Sanders, who voted for the Affordable Care Act, worked to include a provision that authorized $11 billion to build, expand and operate community health centers across the country under the aegis of the Federally Qualified Health Centers, or FQHC, program. With the recognition of these three centers, there are now 11 FQHCs across the state.
Previously, the eight FQHCs in Vermont served 130,000 people. Now, the system will treat 163,000, Sanders said.
“In 1993 we had just two FQHCs — now we have 11 with over 50 separate locations,” Sanders said.
Sanders was among several government officials that pushed to fund these centers.
“Sen. Sanders was at one of the first meetings they (the Five Town Health Alliance) had in Bristol,” said Halnon.
In the last 12 months, the Bristol clinic has seen 9,000 patients, Halnon said. Forty percent had insurance through Medicare or Medicaid, 30-35 percent were insured through Blue Cross Blue Shield, 20 percent had other private insurance and about 4 percent had no insurance at all.
Patients without any insurance or who have inadequate coverage pay based on a sliding scale, mandated by federal guidelines. These are based on the poverty line, which is adjusted annually, annual income and number of persons in the household.
“There’s a real need to expand primary health care in Addison County,” Sanders said. “The Five Town Clinic will welcome those on Medicare and Medicaid.”
The clinic will receive $812,500 for a 15-month period, and $650,000 a year after that.
Halnon said the funding is especially important because it will allow the clinic for the first time to provide dental care. For now, the Mountain Health Center will have one dentist.
Mountain Health Center also has four physicians, a nurse practitioner, a physician’s assistant, a social worker and dietician, six licensed or registered nurses, an executive director and administrative staff.
In addition to expanding services, the grant will be used for outreach and education. Halnon said this is especially important, given the confusion surrounding the implementation of the Vermont Health Connect.
“The question is, how do we reach the uninsured,” Halnon said. “It’s surprising how many people have not heard.”
Just last month, the Mountain Health Center was designated FQHC “look-alike” status, which allowed the clinic to start billing patients using the federal sliding scale guidelines. It was also the last step towards being recognized as an FQHC.

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