Friday, November 25, 2011

TOP STORY > >Business is healthy for clinic

Leader staff writer

Six months after it opened in the old health department building in Cabot, the nonprofit medical clinic ARcare is operating a booming business with 30 to 40 patients visiting daily.

Not to be confused with a free clinic, the nonprofit charges for its services. But patients aren’t turned away because they don’t have insurance like they are at some clinics. Instead, they pay on a sliding scale based on income and household size. Some patients pay as little as $20 for visits, including treatment, lab and X-rays.

And unlike most free clinics, ARcare is open five days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The clinic got its start 30 years ago in Augusta as White River Rural Health, when Dr. Steven Collier decided he wanted to move back home after medical school. Today, in addition to the relatively new clinic in Cabot, ARcare has clinics in 26 cities in 12 counties including Searcy, Carlisle, England, Augusta, Heber Springs, Jonesboro, Lake City, Parkin, Wynne, Batesville, Newport, Swifton, Brinkley, Des Arc, Hazen, Bald Knob, Kensett, Cotton Plant and McCrory.

Collier said this week that opening a nonprofit clinic wasreally his only option since he wanted to practice in the rural area where he grew up and he knew there was no way some of the people who lived there would be able to pay full price for medical care.

“To practice the style of medicine I wanted to practice, that was the vehicle for that,” he said.

Collier said besides being able to bring healthcare to areas with no clinics, what appealed to him was that he could help to create a system of healthcare. He couldn’t do that in urban areas, he said.

Eventually, the work progressed into activism. It wasn’t enough to simply provide healthcare in areas without any, he said. He and his associates now work to improve economic conditions in areas where their clinics are located by organizing education centers for the very young.

Collier said they are usually welcomed because they move in where people are suffering.

“We’re looking at populations that nobody else wants,” he said. “We don’t usually have any competition.”

Collier spoke to The Leader when he returned from a trip to Kentucky where he was helping to open the first Kentuckycare clinic. The ARcare vision, according to its website, is to become the “largest primary care provider in Arkansas, the provider of first choice in our communities, and a national leader of community health centers.”

Joey Miller, chief operating officer for ARcare, said the bottom line drives businesses, including many clinics. Some clinics don’t accept Medicare or Medicaid because those insurances pay set amounts. And the concern with self-pay patients is that there will be no pay for the clinics. Because ARcare gets federal grants to operate as a community health center, no one is turned away. All insurances are accepted and those without insurance pay on a sliding scale.

Miller said the move to Cabot came at the request of then Mayor Eddie Joe Williams, now a state senator, who said Cabot people needed it. And the city had a building that needed a new owner.

City records show ARcare has paid $100,000 toward the $150,000 purchase price with the last of three payments due in October 2012.

Williams said this week that he knew immediately when he inspected the old health department building after it was vacated for the new one that it would be a shame to use it for anything but a clinic.

It was set up with exam rooms and a waiting room, he said, so a clinic was its logical use.

He thought of ARcare, he said, because many Cabot residents had no access to healthcare.

“No matter what community you live in, you have people who are down on their luck,” Williams said.

For example, he said, a single mother of three might be able to get state insurance for her children, but have no insurance of her own.

He pointed out some doctors feel they can’t afford to take patients without private insurance.

“I was talking to a doctor in town who said he had 10 Medicaid patients and he couldn’t take anymore.”

Asked how he thinks the new clinic is performing, Williams said, “On a scale of one to 10, I’d give them an 11. I say that sincerely.”

He said he was amazed at how fast the old health department was renovated for the new occupants. They painted and replaced the carpet and moved in, Williams said, adding that he thinks that keeping overhead low by using existing buildings is one way ARcare is able to provide its services even to those who can’t afford them.

And considering that the new clinic in the old building once owned by the city is able to serve residents across northern Lonoke County, “I think we both got a bargain,” Williams said.