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Low-cost clinics benefit from federal aid
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Rep. Jack Kingston, Diversity CEO Vicki Smith, Diversity board member Holly Stevens, Liberty County Commissioner Connie Thrift and clinic physician Dr. Olugbenga Awe gather at the Diversity Health Center clinic in Ludowici on Thursday to discuss opportunities for expansion. - photo by Photo by Jen Alexander McCall
Since Vicki Smith became CEO of Diversity Health Center in March last year, she has seen the low-cost, nonprofit clinic become a more integral player in the region’s health-care system. But to meet the growing needs of low-income, underinsured and uninsured residents of Liberty and Long counties, Smith and her team face a few challenges — challenges that seem daunting at first but are only a sign of the need for such a facility in the area.
Rep. Jack Kingston toured the Ludowici clinic Thursday to hear about plans for expanding space and services to patients. Ludowici was the first of three clinics to receive federal funds and Diversity leaders are preparing to expand into space next to the current clinic, adding offices for staffers and patient education.
“We have received close to $1.5 million for the clinics since March 2009,” Smith said. $1.2 million in grant money went to the Hinesville clinic this past year, while an additional $485,000 has been earmarked for Ludowici. The group also received an additional, one-time sum of $400,000.
Federal dollars have allowed Diversity to serve populations in Midway as well, and the need for services continues to grow even as the organization looks for more physicians to staff its clinics. “We grew faster than we thought we would,” she said.
Currently the group’s medical director, Dr. Olugbenga Awe, serves as the primary care physician for all three clinics. A native of Nigeria who studied in the U.S. and performed his residency in New York before eventually coming to Georgia nearly four years ago, Awe brought his practice into the Diversity fold after first offering his services part-time. “So far it’s been a nice experience,” Awe said. “We’re really forging ahead and I see a bright future.”
In that bright future, Smith said the organization plans to add more physicians and assisting staff, as well as specialists and pharmacy services. Though the clinic is nonprofit, in order to meet federal guidelines it must provide fee-for-service care. The fees are calculated on a sliding scale according to patients’ income and insurance status.
“The grant money is for providing care but it is also for expanding into other services as [patient] needs are assessed,” Smith told Liberty County commissioners in a report she gave at a Tuesday meeting. “We are very competitive with our fees, and everyone gets the same treatment.”
Smith said though roughly half the patients who visit Diversity clinics are uninsured, “we want them to be insured.” Diversity accepts several forms of health insurance including Medicare, and when the pharmacy is installed Smith hopes the discounts they offer on certain drugs will fill gaps that other drug discount programs have in their formularies.
The clinics are expected to make a profit, though currently they have “lost money on paper,” she told commissioners. “But we’re almost expected to in our early days. We’ve added 16 employees since March 1, and we’re hoping to meet a target of seeing 300 patients in 2010.”
Smith and Rep. Jack Kingston say having primary care clinics that can serve traditionally under-served populations also eases the burden on hospitals and their emergency rooms, where indigent and low-income patients often go for primary care needs.
“The clinic fills a niche for people who are not insured and who don’t have access to dollars,” Kingston said.
Additionally, putting federal dollars toward staffing and equipment rather than administration and “trappings” means better preventive care for patients, Kingston said. “Where there are a lot of rural people, they tend to crowd the ER, coming in for routine issues,” he said. “I would rather see an outfit like this put money into an exam table or physician. Decisions that are made locally are far more effective than decisions made in bureaucracy.”
As revenue picks up, Smith and Awe said they hope to bring in specialists in fields like psychiatric care, an area where the need is consistent, as well as primary care physicians. The clinics share a licensed counselor who helps address behavioral health issues. The staff also hopes to build referrals with specialists in the area who are willing to see their patients for a lower cost or by establishing payment plans.
 “The beauty is that we can share these things, but we have to have a way to pay for them,” Smith said. To that end, Diversity continues to apply for the federal funds that help it operate. The first grant is scheduled to last three years but within each calendar year the staff applies for both competing grants and non-competing grants. “We’re hoping the $1.2 million will be ongoing funds,” she said.
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