By BROOKE WOLFORD
COEUR d’ALENE — Heritage Health, North Idaho’s largest primary care provider, breathed new life into its staff and services after uncertainty in the national healthcare arena forced them to lay off 30 positions in early February.
The Coeur d’Alene-based organization provides integrated medical, dental and mental health services to all members of the community — regardless of ability to pay. Heritage Health is part of a national network of community health centers that cares for more than 25 million Americans in medically underserved areas.
Medically underserved areas are those with limited access to family care providers, expensive insurance or where people are too poor to afford co-pays, according to Heritage Health CEO Mike Baker.
Baker explained earlier this year that the rapid growth in demand and uncertainty about changes in health care policy pushed the organization to make cuts in staff.
“We got to a spot at the end of the year where we had to recalibrate and strengthen the base of the organization, which we have done and we’re doing very, very well now,” Baker said.
Baker told The Press layoffs were the best option to immediately reduce overall expenses and get the organization back on its feet. The staff evaluated the programs offered and made necessary cuts, none of which affected patient care.
Baker said he has reached out to former employees who were laid-off in February. He reported that all was well on both sides of the fence, and the grass even got a little greener for Heritage Health.
“We’ve talked with everyone we’ve had to lay off and everybody’s found jobs and landed on their feet, and we’ve hired some back, and we have positions posted on our website and we’re hiring again, just filling key roles,” Baker said.
The turnaround arrived after necessary cuts allowed Heritage Health to update the quality of its services, Baker said. Now they can provide specialized care to those affected by the opioid epidemic, which kills 78 people a day in the U.S., according to Baker.
“It’s so scary. All across the country people are dying every day because of these overdoses on these drugs and it’s just devastating to see the impact of this,” Baker said. “It’s more than just heroin. It’s a big deal.”
Baker said Heritage Health’s pain management program helps patients prescribed opioid pain medications wean off the addictive substances. Heritage Health trains families how to administer overdose medication and teaches patients to cope with pain through exercise so less medication is necessary.
Heritage Health cares for one in every 10 people in the community, Baker said, and community health centers across the country save an average of 24 percent in total spending per Medicaid patient compared to other providers, according to the American Journal of Public Health. This saves the American taxpayer a significant amount because it’s a lot cheaper to go to Heritage Health rather than the emergency room.
“Whether someone has coverage or not, somebody has to pay the bills for that person who goes into the emergency department with a strep throat or heart attack and can’t pay the hospital,” Baker said.
Patients who’re covered through Medicaid, Medicare or commercial insurance help cover the costs of services to Heritage Health. A federal grant, amounting to 10 percent of the organization’s budget, helps cover care for patients without insurance so those who are covered are not forced to foot the bill.
“When you have consistent access to health care and a good relationship with your care provider, you’re less likely to be hospitalized, you’re less likely to use the emergency department — we’re going to put you on drugs that make sense. When you’re accessing healthcare in an episodic fashion, it’s going to be more expensive,” Baker said.
Heritage Health maintains 10 clinics in Kootenai and Shoshone counties. Last year, Heritage Health served around 30,000 patients 130,000 separate times. To celebrate community health centers providing 50 years of quality, affordable care for Americans, next week was declared National Health Center Week.
“It’s not just a clinic for poor people. It’s a clinic for our whole community,” Baker said. “We’re going to be here for a very long time and the future looks pretty bright, and it’s nice to be able to say that after a crisis.”