Board OKs Mesa County’s own medical clinic

Mesa County will contract with an out-of-state company to open and manage a medical clinic for county employees, a change administrators say will save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars next year while blunting rising health plan costs that have hit the county the past two years.

Commissioners voted 2–1 Monday to sign a one-year, $191,568 contract with Indiana-based Novia CareClinics LLC for the clinic, which will provide medical services, lab work and prescription drugs for the 1,300 county employees and family members enrolled in the county’s optional health plan. Commissioner Steve Acquafresca voted against the contract.

“The bottom line is if we can save money for the taxpayers of Mesa County, then we should do that,” Commissioner Janet Rowland said.

Assistant County Administrator Stefani Conley said the county hopes to hire at least two local physicians. The clinic should open late this fall.

But the move rankled local health care providers who expressed concern that the county-run clinic would discourage employees from seeing their primary care physicians and cause them to lose their continuity of care. They also said they felt left out of the decision-making process and asked commissioners to delay a vote for two months to give them a chance to come up with a similar, locally based plan, rather than contract with an out-of-state organization.

“We hear on the radio all the time ‘shop locally.’ Yet here we are with this big plan out there and we’ve not considered staying locally,” said Dianne White, office manager with Family Medical PC in Grand Junction.

The county moved to a self-funded health plan in 2008, meaning it pays every claim. But a projected 15 percent increase in health plan costs this year — following 8 and 10 percent increases the last two years — prompted county officials to explore a different model.

Conley said county administrators last July requested information for clinic management services from St. Mary’s Hospital, Community Hospital, Rocky Mountain Health Plans, Primary Care Partners and three national firms. The three national firms and Primary Care Partners responded to the request. The county also spoke with private companies and other county governments that formed their own medical clinics, including El Paso County, which Conley said experienced so much success with its clinic that it opened a second one.

In addition to saving an estimated $335,000 in health plan expenses next year, county officials say the clinic will offer the health care equivalent of one-stop shopping for employees by giving them a single place to see a doctor, have lab work performed and obtain prescription medication.

Conley said she anticipates 70 percent of the 6,544 employee office visits the county paid for last year will move to the county medical clinic.

Rowland and Commissioner Craig Meis said the county has spent at least the past two years exploring the idea of opening a clinic. They also noted there’s no reason the county, while contracting with Novia to open the clinic, couldn’t have a simultaneous dialogue with local health care providers to see if they could create a similar system.

“The service Novia is offering could easily be replicated and replaced,” Meis said.

Acquafresca, though, said he isn’t convinced the county fully explored a partnership with local agencies. And he lamented the fact that employees will pay more out of pocket if they continue to see their primary doctors rather than going to the county clinic.

“That’s a trend away from health care choices,” he said.

Several local physicians said they didn’t learn about the county’s proposal until late last week.

After the meeting, White predicted the county will have trouble persuading doctors to leave established practices and join a nascent operation, and that the clinic’s opening will push some primary care physicians into early retirement.

“We figured walking into here that this was a done deal,” she said. “This was just a formality. They didn’t really want to hear from the medical community.”


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