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Published January 03, 2014, 09:47 PM

Community health centers prepare for flood of new patients

ST. PAUL – Community health centers in Minnesota are hiring more people to prepare for an influx of new patients who are now covered because of the federal health care law.

By: Elizabeth Stawicki, MPR News 90.3 FM, INFORUM

ST. PAUL – Community health centers in Minnesota are hiring more people to prepare for an influx of new patients who are now covered because of the federal health care law.

The law expanded Medicaid and provided some people with premium discounts through the state’s new online insurance marketplace, MNsure. As a result, community health centers expect to see a 12 to 15 percent rise in the number of patients this year.

At United Family Medicine, a community health clinic in St Paul, the new patients will include a man who showed up on its doorstep about a week ago. Connie Walsh, United Family’s lead patient advocate, said the man in his mid-50s, who’d been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a decade ago, had gone for years without health care because he couldn’t afford the state’s high-risk pool premiums.

“[He] will start to come to our clinic and just to play catch-up with all of his needs because he hasn’t had any health care for three or four years,” Walsh said. “He’s going to have quite a few appointments in January and February.”

United Family Medicine expects to see its number of patients jump from 19,000 to 23,000, which translates into another 13,000 patient visits for 2014.

In the near term, community health centers will see more patients and likely sicker ones, said Jonathan Watson, public policy director for the Minnesota Association of Community Health Centers, which represents about 60 clinic sites throughout the state.

“Hopefully we get them in the primary care system and really drive down the health care costs for them, keep them out of the emergency room and provide some savings overall,” Watson said.

At Family HealthCare Center, a community health center in Fargo, administrators expect to see newly eligible patients this year but don’t have an estimate.

Experience in Massachusetts, which expanded access to health care before the Affordable Care Act was passed, suggests the big influx of patients is delayed, Sam Kundinger, the center’s chief business development officer, said Thursday.

“It was really in their second and third year that they had a big uptick,” she said. “We’re holding tight.”

More than a third of the clinic’s patients, 37 percent, are on Medicaid or some other public insurance program, Kundinger said.

Most community health clinic patients have low incomes. Roughly 95 percent have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For a single earner, that’s less than $23,000 annually. It’s about $47,000 for a family of four.

Many of these people will be covered under Medical Assistance or MinnesotaCare, with a few buying private insurance on MNsure with the help of tax credits.

Nevertheless, Watson said Minnesota’s community health clinics will still have to treat at least 50,000 patients who will remain uninsured. They include people exempt from the law; some who are barred from government coverage, such as people who are in the country illegally.

Others are able to sign up for coverage but have decided not to. In the first year of the new law, they will be fined 1 percent of their income or $95, whichever is greater. The fine will increase in coming years.

Forum reporter Patrick Springer contributed to this report.