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State funds boost local health sites

By John Laidler
Globe Correspondent / July 8, 2012
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Four area health care organizations will receive help in adopting innovative practices to improve patient care and reduce costs through recent state grant awards.

The Lowell Community Health Center, Lynn Community Health Center, North Shore Community Health, and Steward Health Care’s Holy Family Hospital in Methuen will receive a combined $413,973 in funding announced June 26.

The funding is part of $3 million awarded to 27 community health centers and hospitals statewide.

The state awarded Lowell Community Health Center $102,268, and Lynn Community Health Center $107,168, to support steps they need to take to obtain national recognition as “patient-centered medical homes.”

The concept, which is being promoted by Massachusetts officials, involves having a primary care doctor head a provider team that coordinates all a patient’s health needs, including management of chronic conditions, visits to specialists, and hospital admissions. The goal is to improve patient care and in so doing to reduce long-term costs.

“We are thrilled to receive this because this is the direction we are moving in as a community health center,” Maura Smith, director of development and community relations for Lowell Community Health Center, said of the group’s award.

She said the state resources “will allow us to pay the cost of assigning staff to work on making sure we meet all the objectives” needed to achieve recognition from the National Committee for Quality Assurance.

North Shore Community Health was awarded $102,268 for initiatives to improve performance, while Holy Family Hospital will receive $102,268 for steps to expand outreach, enrollment, and health access.

In addition to those uses, recipients statewide received grants to enhance management of existing patient-centered medical homes, and to transition to a global payment system, an alternative to the usual fee-for-service model, providers receive a set budget for each patient, giving them an incentive to keep patients healthy.

JudyAnn Bigby, the state’s health and human services secretary, said in an interview that the grants are intended “to provide hospitals and health centers with funds that would help them transform to either become more integrated systems or to prepare them to be able to accept different payment methodologies, to move away from fee for service.”

The state is promoting patient-centered medical homes, one of the integrated systems, “because we believe primary care should move away from the structure where they are basically seeing patients every 15 minutes,” Bigby said.

A medical home, Bigby said, is “a more holistic approach that involves engaging the patient and helping them understand what their problems are. . . . There is a team approach where the primary care provider is not the only individual who participates in the care of the person.”

That holistic approach, and the improved access to care that is also one of its features, should lead to cost savings since patients will need fewer trips to the emergency room, Bigby said. “We think this is a way to make sure we are delivering the right care in the right place.”

Lowell Community Health Center, which is in the midst of an expansion, provides primary care, behavioral health services, and community health education at several sites in the city.

Smith said the center believes that with its transition to a medical home model, “our patients will have increased access to appointments, which will ultimately result in better health outcomes.”

The center plans to assign a nurse who will work with patients to schedule appointments and ensure they bring the right information to them; a trilingual — English, Spanish, and Portuguese — community health worker, and a clinical analyst to oversee the data collection needed for the center’s bid for medical home recognition.

Lynn Community Health Center, which recently completed a major expansion, is the city’s largest outpatient health care provider, serving 36,000 patients a year.

Lori Berry, the group’s executive director, said the center’s grant “is the culmination of work that we’ve been doing all year to develop systems to improve the services we provide to our patients so that we meet the standard of the patient-centered medical home.

She said the funds would be used to “support clinical and administrative staff time to get us ready” for seeking the national recognition.

North Shore Community Health runs family health centers in Gloucester, Peabody, and Salem, and a teen health center at Salem High School.

With its grant, the center plans to employ a consultant to explore ways it can provide more proactive care to its patients, particularly those with diabetes, hypertension, and depression, according to Margaret Brennan, the organization’s chief executive. She said the goal is to position the center to seek recognition in a year as a patient-centered medical home.

The consultant “is going to be working closely with our clinical leadership to really manage the project,” Brennan said, adding that the grant will also pay for staff time.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for us,” she said, noting that without the funding assistance, it would have taken much longer for the center to tackle the project.

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