Group works to bring community health care center to Grand ForksAlliance for Healthcare Access heading up effort to build facility to provide care to uninsured, underinsured residents
Even with a strong economy and relatively low unemployment, a growing number of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks residents are unable to afford basic medical care that could prevent a costly emergency room visit down the road. But a group of 20 local agencies, including Altru Health System, Sanford Health and the Third Street Clinic, is working to build a community health center that could help close the gap and ensure more families, children and individuals get the care they need but often can’t afford.
Even with a strong economy and relatively low unemployment, a growing number of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks residents are unable to afford basic medical care that could prevent a costly emergency room visit down the road.
But a group of 20 local agencies, including Altru Health System, Sanford Health and the Third Street Clinic, is working to build a community health center that could help close the gap and ensure more families, children and individuals get the care they need but often can’t afford.
Last year, Grand Forks was one of 127 communities nationwide to be awarded a federal grant to hire a full-time employee who could focus on planning for a community health center, a federally sanctioned model of health care designed to give low-income, uninsured and underinsured residents a way of receiving primary care, dental care and mental health services.
Mara Jiran started in November, and has spent her time engaging community agencies in Alliance for Healthcare Access’ big goal — developing a plan to provide the services and lease space in downtown Grand Forks to open the city’s first full-service community health center in early 2013.
She said the five such centers now in North Dakota, including in Larimore and Northwood, are projected to save the state nearly $22 million through more efficient care, as well as preventative care that will keep people from getting sick enough to build large medical bills when they eventually are forced to go to the doctor.
But Jiran said some residents may not realize the scope of the local health care access problems, especially when the economy is strong.
“I think we don’t recognize really how many people and families are struggling when we look at how many kids we have right now that are qualifying for free and reduced lunches and how many families are working one or two jobs and just really struggling to stay above the fray,” she said.
In Grand Forks, 20.6 percent of residents live in poverty — well above the national rate of 13.8 percent. The rate is 14.5 percent in East Grand Forks, above Polk County’s overall rate of 13 percent, and more than 35 percent of the cities’ children qualify for free or reduced lunches at school.
Jiran said some residents are able to get free or reduced-price services at Third Street Clinic. But not everyone qualifies for those services, and the clinic is not able to provide long-term care for people with chronic diseases such as diabetes.
That’s where a community health center would cover the gap, she said, with everyone expected to pay at least a small amount toward their health care.
“It is not a free clinic,” she said. “The whole goal is that we’re sustainable with our mix of payers as well as the infusion from the federal government that kind of acknowledges we’re taking on some of those uninsured patients.”
Jiran said the alliance is still spreading word of its efforts and formulating a plan for how a community health center would operate in Grand Forks. The plan, so far, calls for a leased space in the downtown area of about 6,000 square feet and hiring a staff of about four medical providers and some administrative employees.
The Alliance for Healthcare Access has already vetted possible agencies to oversee the center and has picked Valley Community Health Centers, which runs operations in Northwood and Larimore as well as a dental clinic in downtown Grand Forks.
Jiran said the group’s plan has picked up strong support from community organizations and medical agencies.
But before a community health center could become a reality, the plan needs to earn the approval of an important critic — the federal government.
Jiran said the Health Resources and Services Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, will likely begin accepting applications in August for a new round of federal grants to help fund community health centers.
Once the local plan has been submitted, organizers will likely have to wait until early 2013 to find out if they were approved for a grant through the “very competitive” process. If awarded, the Grand Forks community health center would be required to open for patients within 120 days.
“That’s why so much of this work will happen this summer,” she said. “We’re looking now at trying to get everything in place.”
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