Health facility on track

ARLINGTON - Those in search of medical care in Arlington and the surrounding area will soon be able to receive it all in one place. The Arlington Family Practice will become a part of the Battenkill Valley Health Center in March of 2014. The center is hosting an community event this Saturday, Dec. 7 to let the public know what is happening.

The Battenkill Valley Health Center was designated a federally qualified health center this fall and will provide medical, dental and mental health services vices to all members of the community, regardless of their economic status, said board chairwoman Mary Anne Carlson.

The idea for this center came about five years ago, when the Arlington, Sunderland, Sandgate area was designated a medically under served area, Dr. Michael Welther, owner of the Arlington Family Practice said.

"By knowing that, we first pursued what's called a rural health clinic...[and] my practice was successful at doing that," he said. "And that allows us to add some ways to make it more financially viable and provide some more services to a point, but it is still a private and small practice."

However, he learned that because he worked in a underserved area, with some changes, such as implementing a non-profit board of community members, the practice could become a Federally Qualified Health Center. A meeting was held with members of the community and a representative from Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-VT) office, who is a major proponent of FQHCs. Welther said that on a personal level he was also thinking of the future and if the practice would survive his retirement. Currently, Welther has no plans for retirement.

"It made sense for me personally and it also made sense to keep the practice in the community, and it also made sense to attract these increase number of services that a federally qualified health centers provides, including uninsured, under insured people, mental health and dental services, pharmacy benefits," he said. "It just seemed to make a lot of sense on all levels."

To apply for the FQHC designation, the state provided the board with some grants to help underwrite the process, Carlson said. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where the designation comes from, the applicant must document the needs of primary care services in their area, their plan for addressing this need, give a history and clinical capacity of their organization, describe the environment of the communities they serve and provide detailed budget and staff information.

Originally, the grant was denied in September, but funding for more FQHCs was released and the Battenkill Valley Health Center received $775,000. Dr. Elizabeth Wennar Rosenberg, a board member, worked as a liaison between the state and federal government to help secure this funding. She said the application was fiercely competitive and that the funding for FQHCs was not officially sequestered, but was not being spent.

"By the grace of God and Bernie Sanders working down there in Washington D.C., he got the funding," she said. "We are very fortunate to have somebody [Sanders] that really understands the plight of primary care in rural communities."

At the same time the Battenkill Valley Health Center received its FQHC designation, two other locations were given this designation. Now, Vermont is home to 11 FQHCs and these locations will be able to provide primary health services to approximately 25 percent of the population.

The center, when it opens in March, will be an considered an anchor office, Welther said. Because this is the first FQHC in Bennington County, satellite offices can be opened, with in kind services provided. Welther said there is discussion of opening a satellite office in Bennington, at some time in the future, once the Arlington office is open and operational.

Sanders visited with the board in Arlington on Tuesday, Dec. 3. He congratulated them on receiving the designation and urged them to look to other FQHCs around the country and see what is working.

"I would encourage all of you to learn from what these other centers are doing, steal their ideas," he said. "There are really a lot of good ideas out there, so explore, experiment and learn. Some ideas will fail, others will succeed, but obviously the goal is to treat illness and keep people healthy."

The community outreach event will be Saturday, Dec. 7, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Arlington Family Practice, on 9 Church Street.


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