Partnering for Primary Care

Imagine your favorite medical TV drama for a moment.

Picture a scene where a woman is rushed to the Emergency Department in severe respiratory distress – she can’t breathe. She’s treated by a team of highly qualified physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists and returns home. The back story, revealed later in the episode, is that the woman has severe asthma and despite several attempts to quit, she continues to smoke a half pack of cigarettes a day.

Imagine now another scenario during your show where this woman sees a primary care physician on a regular basis to manage her asthma. At those appointments, she’s also given information, support and possibly medication that helps her quit smoking.

Your TV show is a great example of the shift in healthcare and the role primary care providers can play in the overall health and wellbeing of a community. “Primary care providers get to know their patients and develop productive relationships with them. They can help patients take a proactive, or a preventative approach, to their own health care,” explained Michelle LeBeau, president of Alice Hyde Medical Center and Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital (CVPH), both affiliates of the University of Vermont Health Network.
“We have very good primary care providers locally. What we don’t have is enough providers,” she said. Lack of access to primary care in the North Country has been an ongoing issue for some time.
Improving access to primary care is a priority. As healthcare shifts from treating illness to focusing on prevention and wellness, primary care providers will assume an even larger role. “Primary care providers are on the front line of healthcare. They are often the best resource for managing a patient’s care, coordinating a variety of health care services and promoting their overall health and wellbeing,” LeBeau explained.

The CVPH Family Medicine Residency was created in 2016 to address the shortage of primary care providers in the North Country. Studies show that Family Medicine Physicians often decide to practice within 100 miles of where they completed their residency. With that in mind and robust support from the CVPH Medical Staff and the University of Vermont Health Network, the Family Medicine Residency is currently training 14 family medicine residents in Plattsburgh. In March of 2019, six more will be welcomed into the three-year training program and in July of this year, its first class will graduate.

In the North Country, an exciting partnership between CVPH and Hudson Headwaters Health Network (Hudson Headwaters) is also making great strides in addressing the primary care shortage.

Hudson Headwaters is a nonprofit health- care system serving Clinton, Essex, Hamilton, Saratoga, Warren and Washington counties. “We’re a comprehensive primary care organization,” said Dr. Tucker Slingerland, CEO of Hudson Headwaters Health Network. With roughly 180 providers and 100,000 patients in its network, Hudson Headwaters focuses almost exclusively on preventative and proactive healthcare for all ages.

According to Dr. Slingerland, the struggle for patients to find a primary care physician (PCP) results from a few different challenges. “There are challenges recruiting new providers to the area. We have a generation of physicians who are retiring or near retirement and many of the practices are really full,” he said.
CVPH and Hudson Headwaters partnered in 2017 to open Champlain Family Health in Champlain, NY. This impressive facility provides primary care and ancillary services, such as x-ray, EKG, and blood draw. According to Dr. Slingerland, the Champlain location is currently the fastest growing site in its network, which substantiated the need for PCPs in Clinton County.

Together, Hudson Headwaters and CVPH opened Plattsburgh Family Health on February 4th. The new 19,125 square foot primary care facility is located at the CVPH Health Plaza. The project broke ground in March of 2018 and was funded by a $3.6 mil- lion matching grant from New York State. CVPH will lease the building to Hudson Headwaters and provide access to its ancillary services and technology. Conversely, Hudson Headwaters will supply the physicians and care staff.

The site is a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC), operating as a non-profit primary care provider in a rural area with a board of directors that includes local patients. To maintain FQHC status, the site will also have to adhere to strict requirements.

According to Dr. Slingerland and LeBeau, the patient experience should be both smooth and convenient. The planned connectivity of Plattsburgh Family Health with CVPH services already on site will allow patients to free flow between the various services. “We hope this new facility will be more convenient for people and for those who have been unable to find a local healthcare provider, this will be a great opportunity,” said Slingerland.

The new facility will also bring several new PCPs to Plattsburgh, supporting a joint effort to provide more primary care in the region. “We will have space for seven to eight providers,” said Slingerland. “When it’s all up to speed we will likely have four physicians and three or four physician assistants or nurse practitioners, as well as a full complement of nursing and support staff.”

The team at Hudson Headwaters is eager to help any North Country residents looking for a PCP, according to Dr. Slingerland. “We welcome all patients regardless of their insurance status but we also participate with most major insurers, including Medicaid and Medicare. We also have financial billing assistance,” said Dr. Slingerland,“…as well as prescription assistance for ongoing prescription needs. We’ve done everything we can to remove barriers that folks might have to receiving care.”

Both leaders have demonstrated great appreciation for the partnership, recognizing the valuable resources and experience each brings to the table. “I think it would have been difficult for either of our organizations to do all of this independently,” said Slingerland. “Working together, we’ve been able to configure something that’s really comprehensive and represents the best of what’s possible, not only in primary care but in integrated systems.”

LeBeau agreed and said both organizations share a real commitment to doing what’s best for patients and the community. “It’s a neat shift when primary care is becoming the focus of healthcare and hospitals are just a part of that,” she said. “The center focus of healthcare is really in the primary care space.”