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Stimulus funds breathe new life into local clinic

POSTED: April 7, 2009 12:00 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Dr. Bill Manus checks the eyes of patient Gail Forrester at the MedLink clinic in Gainesville. The clinic will get federal stimulus money.

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A Gainesville clinic will get a much-needed infusion of cash from the $787 billion federal stimulus bill signed by President Barack Obama in February.

MedLink Gainesville, a primary care practice at 1211 Sherwood Park Drive, already receives a federal subsidy that enables it to charge uninsured patients on a sliding fee scale based on income.

But in order to remain financially solvent, the clinic can only see a limited number of subsidized patients.

“If the federal money ran out, you’d either have to eat the cost or turn patients away,” said office manager Cathy Arrendale.

As the economy took a nosedive, more people found themselves stuck in a health care limbo: no longer insured, yet not poor enough to qualify for free programs such as Gainesville’s Good News Clinics. For such patients, a community health center like MedLink is often the only affordable option.

“We’re getting more patients who need assistance from the sliding fee,” said Dr. Jackie Griffin, chief executive officer of Medlink Georgia.

Based in Madison County, the nonprofit corporation serves about 36,000 patients at 10 health centers, including locations in Hall, Banks, Rabun and Barrow counties.

The federal stimulus package contains $2 billion in extra funding for community health centers, enough to treat an additional 500,000 patients nationwide.

Georgia will receive about $6.9 million via “increased demand for services” grants, and $524,454 of that will go to MedLink.

Griffin said the corporation got $100,000, and each of the 10 centers will receive $6 per patient overall, plus $19 for each uninsured patient.

“The funding is for two years,” Griffin said. “We were in a financial crisis last year, so this will help tremendously.”

Even with the subsidy, MedLink needs a substantial percentage of insured patients in order to balance out the payer mix. “Only 25 percent of our income comes from the federal government,” said Arrendale.

And some uninsured people may still earn too much income to be eligible for the subsidy.

“We have to follow the income guidelines from the federal government,” said Arrendale. “We can’t tell a patient over the phone if they qualify for the sliding fee. We have to put their information (such as number of dependents) into the computer.”
Those who do qualify are charged a co-payment ranging from $25 to $50 per visit.

“We’re not a free clinic,” said Arrendale. “But the typical charge (at most primary care practices) to see a doctor is about $100, so even patients who have the maximum co-pay are still getting a 50 percent discount.”

MedLink is the only medical provider in Hall to receive stimulus money. Good News Clinics relies on private donations and does not accept government funding. The primary care clinic at the Hall County Health Department does not meet the criteria to be considered a community health center.

Though $2 billion is only a tiny fraction of the total stimulus bill, some critics have questioned whether health centers should be part of a package designed to jump-start the economy.

Arrendale believes the inclusion is justified. “These funds do stimulate the economy, because when people can’t pay their medical bills, they go further into debt,” she said.

The United States spends almost $2 trillion a year on health care. President Obama contends that it won’t be possible to achieve long-term economic stability without reforming the nation’s health care system.



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