BENNINGTON - The Battenkill Valley Health Center will operate as a federally qualified health center come January - the only of its kind in Bennington County - after receiving a federal grant in the amount of $775,000, according to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

In addition to the Battenkill Valley Health Center, the Five Town Health Alliance in Bristol and the Gifford Medical Center in Randolph also received federal funding, according to Sanders, increasing the number of federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) in operation throughout the state from eight to 11.

Sanders said that last year, the preexisting eight FQHCs provided more than 130,000 Vermonters with primary care, dental care, and mental health counseling, and also served as outlets for low-cost prescription drugs.

Those without insurance can also receive care, according to Sanders, as payments are determined using a sliding scale system.

Sanders said that when three new FAHCs open, around 33,000 additional patients will receive care, bringing the total number of Vermonters served under FQHCs to approximately 163,000.

"This is a very significant step forward for primary health care in Vermont, but especially Bennington County," Sanders said during a phone interview with the Banner Thursday. "As of yesterday, Bennington County was the only county in Vermont without an FQHC. Now thousands of Vermonters will have access to health care, where they may not have been able to before."

Mary Ann Carlson, the chairwoman of the Battenkill Valley Health Center Board said she and her fellow board members, and Dr. Michael Welther, the owner of Arlington Family Practice (the practice that will house the new FQHC) were excited to learn they'd received the federal grant.

"For a long time, we've been the only county without an FHQC in the state and now we have the mechanism to get our center up and running within the next few months," Carlson said, adding that she anticipates the center being open by January 1. "I'm thrilled that the federal government has deemed us worthy of receiving this and I'm happy for all of the people in Bennington County who will now be able to receive care."

According to Dr. Paul Stagg, who has acted as the project coordinator for the Battenkill Valley Heath Center throughout their quest to become an FQHC, the initial application for the federal grant was mailed in early 2010, but it was denied. So, an additional application was mailed in April of this year.

Stagg said that according to the grant's terms, the center has 120 days from November 1 to be "up and running."

At the present, plans to convert Dr. Welther's 9 Church St. practice into the Battenkill Valley Health Center, FQHC, stand constant, and include renovating existing, undeveloped office space in the same building at Dr. Welther's practice, which will house the additional services offered within FQHCs, including dental and mental health services.

Stagg said the board hopes to expand the center's capacity for its patients in about two years or so.

"The Affordable Care Act will drive more and more patients to health care, which isn't a bad thing, but it's going to stress our ability to take care of everyone," he said, adding that an additional physician will most likely be hired to work alongside Dr. Welther, as well as an additional nurse practitioner.

Stagg and Sanders both said plans are also in the works to expand FQHC care even further throughout Bennington County by way of satellite centers.

According to Stagg, a FQHC satellite center is set to open in the town of Bennington next year.

"There is definitely a need for a center in Bennington itself," Stagg said. "If you look at the number of primary care practices in town, the number of those taking new patients are very few, but people still need medical care."

Stagg would not comment on the center's exact location, but said it would provide the people of Bennington with the same care offered in the Arlington center.

"Vermont is always ranked either first or second in the nation as the healthiest state," Stagg said. "We're going to try and make it even healthier."

Sanders praised the Arlington "locals" on their longtime efforts to open a local FQHC. 

"All of their hard work has finally come to fruition and we're very excited," he said. "It's a good day for Vermont and certainly a good day for Bennington County."