published Monday, August 5th, 2013

Hamilton County eyes in-house health care clinic

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In the interest of saving money, Hamilton County is considering spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to open an employee health clinic.

County commissioners will vote Wednesday on a proposal from Galen Medical Group to run an on-site health clinic and a chronic-care management program for approximately 1,800 employees and dependents who get county health insurance.

The proposed clinic is set to operate in the McDaniel Building at 455 N. Highland Park Ave., where the county’s employee pharmacy is already in place.

Mayor Jim Coppinger said the program seems to be a good call for the county and could help with rising health care costs.

Health care is projected to cost the county $23 million this fiscal year, up $3.7 million from last year.

“We’ve been talking about it for a year. It’s kind of trending throughout the country,” Coppinger said. “The city of Chattanooga has been doing it for a good while. It’s a benefit to employees, but it’s also a benefit to the taxpayers because of the [health care] savings.”

The county received five bids to run the operation, according to county records, but only two came in below $1 million for the first year — those from Cigna and Galen.

Cigna, the county’s current health insurance carrier, bid $559,000, with $64,000 more in building costs to convert the space.

Galen came in at $550,882 but didn’t provide an estimated cost of building. But county records say Galen’s building plan requires “the least amount of modification to the space.”

In a report provided to the commission by the county human resources department, Galen is recommended for a number of reasons: It’s a local company; it will provide 24-hour access to an on-call physician, which may curb unnecessary and costly ER visits; and Galen already sees about 700 county employees, according to the report. The report added that “employee opinion of Cigna is poor.”

Aside from expected savings, the clinic’s central purpose is to help employees stay healthy, Human Resources Director Leslie Longshore said Friday.

“Let’s say you are running a fever one morning, or have some bronchitis, and you think you need to see a doctor. You can come to the clinic and get checked out,” Longshore said. “We hope to be able to do [wellness] visits there, so your annual physical is something we could perform there. We also anticipate some immunizations could be done there.”

Separately, employees or dependents who have chronic problems such as asthma, high blood pressure or diabetes will have the option to join a chronic care program to better manage their conditions and receive discounts at the county pharmacy.

Longshore could not speak specifically about expected savings Friday because terms of the contract have not been finalized, but she said reducing hospital visits by employees will definitely save the county money.

If approved, Hamilton County, like many local governments, would be taking a page out of the private sector’s playbook.

Unum spokeswoman Mary Clarke Guenther said Unum, the nation’s leading disability insurer, has had onsite health clinics at locations in Oregon, Massachusetts and Chattanooga for years.

Unum employees can see a nurse practitioner for allergy shots, flu shots, regular blood pressure checks and other routine health services. But nurses at Unum also work with employees who need frequent evaluation or consultation about ongoing health or diet issues.

It’s paying off, and others in the business world are taking a keener interest in the health of their workforces, Guenther said.

“It’s something that started at least a decade ago when you first saw health care costs creep up — then jump pretty drastically. I think employers are realizing that some conditions, if you get with patients early, you can head off more serious health issues,” Guenther said.

Even something as simple as a flu shot can keep employees from missing work for a few weeks, she said.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he’s squarely in favor of the onsite clinics, and he hasn’t heard any dissent from fellow commissioners.

“I think we’ll be good with it. The feedback I’m getting is everybody’s good with the onsite clinic, they are good with the Galen Group. And I think it will be great for county employees,” Henry said. “You won’t have to be making an appointment with a doctor, you can just go to the clinic. It will be a cost savings and a time savings for employees.”

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at 423-757-6481 or at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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