WATERTOWN — The North Country Family Health Center received $732,251 in federal funding to continue operations as a federally qualified health center through 2015.
The nonprofit agency, headquartered at 238 Arsenal St., received notice recently of the grant application’s success. The center nearly closed eight months ago because of financial and operational troubles. Executive Director Joey Marie Horton credited health center staff members; the state Department of Health; the Health Resources and Service Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Samaritan Medical Center, the agency’s temporary operator, for securing the financial boost.
“The grant is an incredible achievement for the health center,” Mrs. Horton said. “It allows us to obtain an enhanced reimbursement rate for Medicaid and participation in the Tort Claims Act.”
The Federal Tort Claims Act and the enhanced reimbursement rate were two of many benefits the agency was to receive under the original $650,000 federally qualified health center award in June 2012. The act was implemented earlier this year. Mrs. Horton said not all aspects could be accomplished at once.
She said the agency is working toward implementation of the federal 340-B program, which will allow it to purchase supplies, such as vaccines, at significantly reduced costs. That is expected to happen by year’s end, she said.
It wasn’t until after Samaritan became temporary operator that a “large rebilling project” helped adjust finances. The health center’s billing is now outsourced.
Mrs. Horton said the enhanced rate is 30 percent higher than what the agency received before the FQHC status. The agency received retroactive enhanced reimbursement benefits dating back to June 2012.
Improving billing was one of the key elements Samaritan helped outline for the health center to become solvent by the end of 2015. The agency also reduced its staff, restructured operations, worked on paying off debt and continued to look for additional revenue streams.
Means of additional revenue, Mrs. Horton said, allow the agency to “provide care to those who are uninsured and create a sliding fee scale that reduces (services) to a nominal fee.”
Mrs. Horton said the health center cared for 9,000 people who made more than 36,000 medical, mental health and dental visits in 2013. About 60 percent of those people, she said, have Medicaid or are uninsured.
Throughout the past two years, the nonprofit has expanded to include adult medical services at its main office. Because of that addition, a couple of administrative offices were relocated to 210 Court St.
According to a joint news release from U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and U.S. Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the $732,251 will serve both Jefferson and Lewis counties. Prior to the award, the health center had yet to open a clinic in Lewis County, a goal under the original grant. Mrs. Horton said that is a work in progress.
“Our plans do include an expansion of services in Lowville at space we have (at) Lewis County General Hospital,” she said. “We are recruiting for a provider.”
That clinic, which will have three medical exam rooms and possibly a dental exam room, would be located within the agency’s Women, Infants and Children federal supplemental feeding program clinic space.
Once that office is running, Mrs. Horton said, the health center will conduct a needs assessment for a behavioral health provider.
In a prepared statement, Mr. Schumer said the financial assistance is “critical to keeping families in low-income families and rural areas healthy.” Mrs. Gillibrand said it will allow the health center to “meet the need for services in Lewis and Jefferson counties and provide low-income families with better, more affordable care.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Horton said the North Country Family Health Center will continue to operate under Samaritan’s guidance, until October at the latest. Calls to Samaritan spokeswoman Krista A. Kittle were not immediately returned Monday.
The federal grant application was submitted Jan. 21. Mrs. Horton said it’s necessary for the health center to reapply for the same federal funds every one to three years.