Montana employee health clinic opens this week

2012-08-26T00:00:00Z 2014-08-25T09:43:32Z Montana employee health clinic opens this weekBy MIKE DENNISON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette

HELENA — The Schweitzer administration’s new health clinic for state employees will open Friday in Helena, offering online appointments and office visits at no charge to covered employees and their dependents.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer also confirmed last week that his administration hopes to open two more clinics to serve state employees in other cities, possibly in Billings, Missoula or Bozeman.

“This is a model that’s being used by private enterprise all over America,” he said. “What corporate America has found is that when you have your own health care facility, and the physicians, the nurse practitioners are paid a salary, not a piece of the action, or aren’t paid for how many procedures they can gin up, you actually get better health care … and it saves money.”

Schweitzer and state officials plan a grand-opening ceremony Thursday, and the clinic will be open for business Friday.

Schweitzer unveiled the clinic idea in February, and by late May the state had awarded a contract to CareHere of Brentwood, Tenn., to set up and operate the clinic. CareHere operates more than 110 similar clinics around the country.

The state will own the clinic’s equipment and pay a per-patient fee to CareHere, which hires the physicians and other staff members and provides the care. The clinic will be financed by the state employee health plan, which is self-insured.

State employees and their dependents covered by the health plan can arrange an appointment online and will not be charged for office visits with a physician, physician’s assistant or nurse practitioner. The plan covers about 11,000 people in the Helena area.

The administration asked CareHere to get the clinic up and running by late summer or early fall, and CareHere will meet the ambitious schedule.

“It’s faster than our norm, but we’ve opened clinics faster than we have in Montana,” said Ernie Clevenger, president and CEO of the company.

Clevenger said the company was pleasantly surprised by the quality and willingness of health care providers who wanted to work for the clinic. The clinic’s operations director, Jim Barnwell, is a physician’s assistant from Toston who also has a law degree.

The clinic will have one full-time physician, Nate Buffington, who comes to Helena from Polson, and two part-time physicians, Richard Sargent and Jennifer Brunsdon, who also will continue their private practices in Helena.

State officials say an independent actuarial analysis shows the state-employee health plan could save more than $100 million over five years, once clinics are operating in Helena and other locations.

The clinics also will help improve state-employee health by reducing catastrophic medical claims through management of chronic diseases and wellness programs, the administration says.

Republican legislative leaders have criticized the Schweitzer health clinic proposal, saying it should not go forward without legislative approval. The Legislature doesn’t meet until January.

Schweitzer, a Democrat, has said that legislative approval isn’t required because the clinic is merely an administrative act under the state employee health plan.

The state is holding three days of presentations in Helena for employees on the clinic: This Tuesday and Friday at the Department of Public Health and Human Services auditorium and Sept. 4 at the state Department of Transportation auditorium. Presentations will be at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. each day.

While covered state employees can use the health clinic, state University System workers cannot — yet.

Connie Welsh, director of benefits for the Montana University System, said Friday that the governor’s office asked if U-System employees might want to participate. The U-System has its own, separate self-insured health plan for employees.

She said U-System officials want to see how well the clinics work, and will consider later whether their employees want to take part.

Meanwhile, the Schweitzer administration and CareHere will evaluate where and whether they can open two more clinics in other cities this year.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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