SWEETWATER COUNTY – Southwest Counseling is gearing up to become a primary healthcare provider for the low-income residents of Sweetwater County—if they can secure the federal grant they need.
Southwest Counseling is applying to become a Federally Qualified Healthcare Center (FQHC), which would grant them $952,000 a year to serve the medical needs of the poor, uninsured, Medicaid, and Medicare patients in the area.
Stepping into a Need
Southwest Counseling would be stepping into a void left in the county’s healthcare when Sweetwater Health Center closed their doors on Dec 31, 2016. Sweetwater Health Center was the previously designated FQHC, but will not have ties to the new one proposed at Southwest Counseling.
Since Sweetwater Health Center closed, Memorial Hospital has reported an increase in emergency room use for routine visits from the low-income sector. Patients are also being referred to the Evanston and Riverton Health Centers.
“Federally Qualified Healthcare Centers are tasked with serving people at 200% poverty and below (See the table below). We are already serving that population. That’s just who we get,” said Laura Schmid-Pizzato, recovery services manager at Southwest Counseling.
The Federal Poverty Levels use yearly income to determine who qualifies for programs like Medicaid and food stamps.
Below 200% poverty, it’s almost impossible for people to find housing or afford healthcare without help, said Schmid-Pizzato.
2016 Poverty Guidelines for the 48 Contiguous States and the District of Columbia
|Household Size||100% (Extreme Poverty)||200% (Very Poor)||300% (Poor)|
Poised to Make the Shift
Southwest Counseling has been providing the people of Southwest Wyoming with mental health and substance abuse treatment services for more than 40 years. The range of services they offer is substantial—from group therapy and social detox support to residential programs for people with mental health issues. If you need a little help, they have a service for that—and if you need a lot of help, they’ve got that too.
When asked if becoming a primary care facility is outside Southwest Counseling’s scope, Executive Director Linda Acker says “it’s both a yes/no answer.”
They build their argument upon the fact that they already have much of the needed infrastructure in place. They have a Nurse Practitioner and a Physician’s Assistant on hand because their clients are required by the state to be seen by a physician within 72 hours of entering a residential program.
Southwest Counseling brought a PA on staff because meeting that state mandate was so difficult. Sweetwater County is designated as a Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA), which means people using Medicare or Medicaid may not be able to find a provider here because offices are not taking new patients. As it stands, programs like Medicare don’t pay very well and doctor’s offices keep their doors open by limiting the number of those patients. Southwest Counseling solved their own problem by bringing a PA on staff.
A Few Changes
The grant requires that the clinic be up and running within 4 months, but Schmid-Pizzato said with their infrastructure they will have primary care ready in less than a month. They expect to have dental services within the 4 months. Pharmacy services would come later as an add-on grant.
The grant does require that the clinic serve 8,253 people under the 200% poverty level.
“Realize, we saw 4,000 last year of our own clients that probably could have utilized the community health care center,” said Acker.
The grant would pay for 13 full-time employees, all of which are current employees except for two additional Nurse Practitioners and one Registered Nurse. They would also enter into a contract for a part-time Chief Medical Officer with the hospital. They would need to do some remodeling of their current exam rooms on Ankeny Way.
“We are already on a sliding free scale. We know how to do that. We aren’t going to be increasing the overhead because we already have that economy of skill,” said Acker. “We have the necessary framework, but we’d have to expand it with more providers, especially with the numbers we are going to be required to have.”
The Sweetwater County Commissioners voted at the Tuesday meeting to give this project a letter of support.