HELENA — The state this week opened its second health center that offers primary care and wellness services exclusively for state workers covered by its employee health plan — this time in Billings.
The center, available to some 2,000 state employees and their dependents in the Billings area, opened Monday nine months after the state opened its first employee health clinic in Helena, where 11,000 state employees and their dependents live and work.
The first clinic has been popular, with usage 50 percent higher than projected, and the state wants to extend the concept to other employees around Montana, said Russ Hill, administrator of the state Health Care and Benefits Division.
“We’ve been very satisfied with the service, the care that’s provided and also with the movement that we’re seeing on wellness services,” he said Tuesday.
CareHere of Brentwood, Tenn., the private company that last year won the bid to operate the Helena clinic, also is operating the new health center at 1501 14th St. W. in Billings.
Hill said the state wants to open a health center next in Miles City and, eventually, one near Butte, Anaconda and Deer Lodge, the population area that has the second-highest concentration of state employees, after Helena.
Billings has the third-highest concentration of state workers of any metro area in Montana, he said.
Montana University System employees have a separate health plan and are not covered by the clinics.
The centers are open to employees and their dependents covered by Montana’s self-insured employee health plan.
Former Gov. Brian Schweitzer unveiled the idea in early 2012, saying many private corporations set up health clinics dedicated to their employees to reduce the costs of health care and health insurance and create a healthier workforce.
The plan was not without controversy, as Republican legislative leaders said the Schweitzer administration was rushing into the plan without legislative approval.
Schweitzer, a Democrat, said such approval wasn’t needed, and that opening the clinics was just part of the state’s management of its employee health plan.
The new center in Billings has one full-time physician, a half-time nurse practitioner, nursing support, and two wellness coaches, including a dietitian, Hill said. It’s open Monday through Friday.
He said the state especially wanted to make a health center available to employees at the state Women’s Prison in Billings, because those with high-stress jobs there can benefit from wellness services.
The Helena center has four or five primary-care providers on staff daily, along with nursing staff, and has had 24,000 visits during its first nine months, Hill said — about 50 percent higher than projected. It recently expanded its hours to include 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Hill said it’s too early to determine whether the center has saved the state money or improved employee health, but that it has succeeded in one respect: 400 people covered by the health plan who hadn’t seen a physician in at least two years have come in for a visit.
“We’ve really been able to create access for folks who hadn’t utilized (medical) services,” he said.