WDAZ: Your Home Team

Published January 03, 2014, 09:42 AM

Downtown Grand Forks health clinic to open this spring

There will be another health care option in Grand Forks this spring, providing services to uninsured and underinsured patients.

By: Charley Haley, Grand Forks Herald

There will be another health care option in Grand Forks this spring, providing services to uninsured and underinsured patients.

Valley Community Health Centers, which already operates nearby health clinics in Northwood and Larimore and a dental clinic in Grand Forks, plans to open a Grand Forks health clinic with four exam rooms in mid-April.

The clinic will be in the Deaconess Building downtown, where the dental clinic is already located, and it is expected to serve more than 2,000 people in its first year of operation, said Sharon Ericson, CEO of Valley Community Health Centers.

Like Valley Community Health Centers’ other clinics, the Grand Forks health clinic will be a regular primary and preventative care clinic, not an emergency service. It will take patients with or without health insurance.

Patients with insurance will pay a co-pay, and those without will pay a $20 fee, Ericson said.

There will be two providers, as well as nursing and support staff, Ericson said. She also hopes to have faculty from the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences treat patients about once a week, she said.

The need

Although the clinics are open to anyone, most patients who visit community health centers are at or below 200 percent of the poverty guideline, Ericson said. For a family of four, that’s an annual income of $47,100.

“There are just as many uninsured people falling through the cracks in Grand Forks,” said Debbie Swanson, nurse at Grand Forks Public Health Department and chairwoman of the Red River Valley Alliance for Healthcare Access, which helped the Grand Forks community health center secure funding.

Meredith Richards, the city of Grand Forks’ community development manager, agreed, saying the clinic “is very much needed.”

“There’s a huge demand, and they will be successful,” she said.

About 35 percent of the Grand Forks County population is below the 200 percent poverty income measure, Ericson said.

“What I think in North Dakota is remarkable is the number of people who are being left behind,” Ericson said. With the state’s low unemployment rate and money coming from the Oil Patch and industrial growth, “there are still some people not even making a living wage,” she said.

And people struggling financially often won’t go to the doctor until they’re so sick they have to check into the emergency room, which is very expensive, Ericson said.

“What we hope is that people will come to us instead,” she said, so that they’ll receive regular care.

Starting the clinic

The idea of a Valley Community Health Centers clinic in Grand Forks has been floating around for a few years. Original plans called for a much larger clinic with 11 exam rooms, but federal funding fell through, Ericson said.

The city of Grand Forks provided a block grant of more than $300,000 for the new clinic, though, Richards said.

“We took a look at (our resources) and said ‘We can do this,’” Ericson said. Grand Forks’ need for the clinic appeared too great to wait for more funds, she said.

The Alliance for Healthcare Access, which includes representatives from Altru Health System, Grand Forks County Social Services, Third Street Clinic, Sanford Health and others, also helped make the clinic a reality, and those organizations will continue to partner with the clinic, Ericson said.

For example, Valley Community Health Centers will refer patients to Altru or Sanford for more advanced medical procedures, Ericson said. And it differs from Third Street Clinic, which has residency and low-income requirements, Swanson said.

‘A big deal year’

In addition to opening its Grand Forks clinic, 2014 will be “a big deal year” for Valley Community Health Centers, Ericson said.

“We’re very excited,” she said.

On Tuesday, the nonprofit learned that it was recognized by the National Council on Quality Assurance’s Patient Centered Medical Home 2011 program, Ericson said. The program emphasizes high-quality care that supports access, communication and patient involvement.

Valley Community Health Centers is the first physician group in North Dakota to receive this recognition, Ericson said.

Another big event coming up for Valley Community Health Centers is its 10-year anniversary, Jan. 26.

The first Valley Community Health clinic opened in Northwood Jan. 26, 2004, Ericson said. The Larimore clinic then opened in March of that year, and the Grand Forks dental clinic opened in 2007.

In 2013, the clinics serviced about 6,300 people from northeastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota, Ericson said. About 3,900 of those were dental patients.

With the new Grand Forks clinic, she anticipates closer to 8,800 visits total for the clinics in 2014.

Ericson said the organization still hopes it will be able to further expand its new Grand Forks clinic in the future, after it opens this spring.