Hall County is looking to part ways with a primary care practice that county officials say isn't fulfilling an agreement to provide care for low-income residents.
The Hall County Board of Commissioners on Monday directed Assistant County Administrator Marty Nix and attorney Bill Blalock to negotiate an "exit strategy" with Northeast Georgia Primary Care Clinic at 1292 Athens St., a county-owned clinic space.
The clinic is operated by the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group, a branch of Northeast Georgia Health System. The Georgia Department of Public Health also occupies some of the building.
The physician's group leases the space from the county for a nominal fee, and it has an agreement to offer low-cost care to Hall residents. The existing agreement lasts until the end of the year.
The contract is several years old and stipulates "that the physicians were going to provide, as I understand it, medical services to indigent, lower income clientele," Blalock told the commission during its Monday work session. "I understand that is not the case now."
However, the Northeast Georgia Physicians Group website, states the clinic "offers high quality primary care at a reduced cost" and notes that "fees are based on your ability to cover cost." It lists family medicine as its specialty.
Details of exactly what the clinic was doing wrong weren't clear Monday.
"That I'm not very clear on," Nix told the Times after the meeting. "I know they're affiliated with Northeast Georgia Medical Center, so I don't exactly know what the agreement is with the medical center. The health department, of course, needing that space — instead of trying to spend money on finding other space for them, it makes more sense to try to transition them out."
The Northeast Georgia Health System issued a statement Monday evening standing by the clinic.
"Northeast Georgia Health System has provided primary care services for indigent patients and others at the Hall County Health Department for nearly a decade through Northeast Georgia Physicians Group," said spokesman Sean Couch in the statement. "Fees are reduced and based on patients’ ability to pay, and the primary care clinic provides this benefit to the community at a significant cost, recording a nearly $1.2 million loss during the last fiscal year.
"We will continue to work in good faith with the county to improve the health of our community in all we do.”
Georgia Department of Health needs more room in the facility for its clinic.
"It is very much needed space," Commissioner Kathy Cooper said.
Nix said the county was still trying to contact the care group to discuss the future of the clinic. He said after the meeting that the county's goal is to now "see if there's a way we can transition them out so the health department can increase their staff out at the building on Athens Street."
After some discussion among the commissioners, the group directed staff to work with the primary care group rather than drop the hammer on the contract.
"We backed their bonds, which is a big thing," said Commission Chairman Richard Higgins of the health system. "We make an effort to keep our fund balance at a certain level to give them a better interest rate, so I don't think we should have any heartburn."
Blalock interjected to say the care group's exit from the Athens Street facility should be "negotiable" and that discussion could begin before the end of the current contract. Commissioner Scott Gibbs, with the support of the other commissioners, directed Nix and Blalock to "negotiate for an exit strategy with" the primary care group.
In a statement sent out after the meeting, county spokeswoman Katie Crumley said county "staff and elected officials are committed to facilitating the best possible care for our citizens, and the Northeast Georgia Health System has been an excellent partner in providing that care to our community at large. We will continue to have conversations with leaders of the health system regarding this particular facility."