By Dale P. Faulkner
Westerly Sun staff writer, Mar 10, 2019
WESTERLY — Wood River Health Services plans to expand its presence in the region’s health care market this summer by opening an office in Westerly offering primary care with integrated behavioral health services.
After several years of consideration, the Hope Valley-based facility, which is designated as a federal health center program, is aiming at July 1 as the day it will begin offering services in a medical office building at 17 Wells St. The location is only a few yards down the hill from Westerly Hospital.
Health centers like Wood River receive federal funds to finance care for uninsured patients, subsidize insured patients unable to afford their deductibles and copays, and finance services not covered by insurance. However, many centers, including Wood River Health Services, are not limited to serving only those in need of financial assistance.
“An expansion of a satellite location for Wood River Health Services has been under discussion by the board for more than a decade,” said Alison L. Croke, Wood River Health Services president and CEO, during an interview last week.
About 25 to 30 percent of Wood River’s current patients live in Westerly. With an office closer to home, those patients — including many who face transportation challenges — will have an easier time getting to their medical appointments. The new office is on a Rhode Island Public Transit Authority flex route.
While Wood River Health Services includes as part of its mission a commitment to a low-income population who are medically underserved, the organization is also a player in the competitive local health care market.
“Part of the reason we wanted to open here was to provide better access to the residents of Westerly and really, quite honestly, to sort of get ahead of the competition that we expect is going to continue to emerge in the Westerly space, particularly from out-of-state providers. We don’t want our patient base to erode, we want to grow it,” Croke said.
Marketing and outreach efforts will focus on the 5,500 residents in Westerly who qualify for Medicaid benefits. Of that group, only 500 receive services at the Hope Valley facility, Croke said.
She noted that a quarter of Westerly’s population is living in poverty. “Many of them are working poor who struggle to access health care because of transportation” and the unwillingness of medical providers to accept Medicaid patients, she added.
A recruitment effort to hire a new family medicine physician and a new nurse practitioner is underway. Initially, when the new office opens, staff members from Hope Valley will likely rotate into the Westerly office, Croke said.
The staff at the Westerly office, which will have four exam rooms and space for behavioral health counseling, will also include two medical assistants, one or two additional nurses, and one or two front desk workers. The office will likely be open four days per week to start, Croke said.
One of the goals is to help people who use the Westerly Hospital Emergency Department for services that could otherwise be met in a primary care setting. Wood River and the hospital considered opening the satellite office in the hospital itself, but the need for extensive renovations was a factor in not pursuing that idea, Croke said.
The new office will not function as a walk-in clinic but will make urgent care appointment slots available for established patients who are sick and need to see a doctor for an emergency condition.
The Westerly office will mirror the approach used in Hope Valley for the delivery of behavioral health services. All patients will be screened annually for depression, anxiety and substance use. Depending on the results, a social worker or psychiatric nurse practitioner will be on hand for immediate interventions or to help develop a plan for services. Those services could include talk therapy, medications, or both. Patients with complex psychiatric conditions or in need of detox would be referred to other providers.
Croke declined to discuss the exact cost associated with opening the new facility but said the Wood River Board had committed to investing funds to perform minor renovations to the leased space and for equipment.
“It’s a little bit of a leap of faith. We need to get to 1,200 new patients between here and Hope Valley to be financially solvent. We think we can get there pretty quickly. Critical to that is getting new staff,” she said.
Public and private grants are being pursued to cover some of the costs of opening the new office.
Wood River Health Services is a National Committee for Quality Assurance recognized patient-centered medical home. The committee manages voluntary accreditation programs for doctors, health plans, and medical groups. Patient-Centered Medical Homes are team-based health care delivery models aimed at providing comprehensive and continuous medical care to patients with the goal of achieving the best health outcomes. The Westerly office will also function as a patient-centered medical home, Croke said.
In the future, Croke said, Wood River would like to open a dental clinic in Westerly. Dental services are offered at Wood River’s Hope Valley office.
“We know dental care is underutilized for children on Medicaid and no dentist here accepts Medicaid for adults. We feel we’d be meeting a great community need by opening a dental clinic here,” she said.