Buncombe County and Health Partners, an Asheville-based nonprofit, are gearing up to roll out an ambitious online system later this year called Health Net that will help safety-net providers better serve the county’s uninsured, low-income and impoverished residents.
Tentatively slated to debut in September, the system is believed to be the only one of its kind in the state. Modeled on a program in Austin, Texas, Health Net should prove to be a boon for needy individuals, care providers, taxpayers and the business community, says J. Nelson-Weaver, the director of Health Partners.
Centralized information sharing will enable government and nonprofit service providers to collaborate in responding to clients’ diverse needs.
“Service providers realized that if we could share information, that would help us a lot,” Nelson-Weaver explains. “If we could know, for example, at the hospital whether people were already on Medicaid, that would help us serve them more quickly, because we’d know they already have a payment source. Finding a source of payment for people that have no insurance is a very important piece of providing care to the uninsured. … That means that particular person doesn’t have to take one of the very few slots away from people who have absolutely no way to pay.
“That’s really the whole concept of Health Net,” she adds. “How can we work together collaboratively to identify and get people enrolled in the services that are already there, so we can open up more of those slots for those people who really have no financial option.”
Initially, the system will link 16 partners, including all local health-care providers serving low-income, uninsured county residents plus a handful of nonprofits: ABCCM, Access II Care, the Buncombe County Medical Society (Project Access), the Department of Social Services, Eblen Foundation, Emma Family Medical Clinic, the Health Center, Health Partners, Hot Springs Health Program, MAHEC, Mission Hospitals, Pisgah Legal Services, Sisters of Mercy Urgent Care, Three Streams Family Health Center, Western Highlands Network and WNC Community Health Services.
The DSS will station a worker in each clinic to screen patients as they walk in the door. Those seeking care will be asked a few questions to determine their eligibility not only for Medicaid and other forms of health assistance, but also for such services as food stamps, WIC, job training and subsidized daycare. Using Health Net, eligibility can be determined in as little as three or four minutes, says Nelson-Weaver, and the person can then apply and be approved for those services on the spot. That, she says, is “really the beauty of the system. The sky’s the limit.”
If the first phase proves successful, the system could eventually be expanded to include any interested nonprofit that serves the needy. “The idea is that every place that someone goes that’s on this Health Net system becomes a one-stop shop,” Nelson-Weaver explains. “The other fabulous thing about it is, for example, if I find out I’m eligible for food stamps, I don’t have to go over to DSS a different day and sign up. I can sign up right there … because everybody is sharing this Internet-based system. It’s really enhancing customer service, because we don’t have to keep running people around.”
“The end goal is to increase access to care, to be able to help more uninsured people in our community by using the funding we already have in a new way,” says the Rev. Scott Rogers, executive director of ABCCM and board chair of Health Partners.
“This is really a wonderful example of collaboration,” adds Abram Gordon of Network Sciences, the firm providing the software that facilitates the customer screening and eligibility assessments. “We rarely see the government, so many of the health providers, and the hospitals working so closely together in one system of care. It is really the vision for how this kind of system can work best.”
Besides serving the needy, the benefits of this level of collaboration should also trickle down to the general business community, notes Nelson-Weaver.
“The Chamber of Commerce has identified the improved health of our community as a critical piece of economic development in this town,” she points out. “Sick people don’t make good employees. You can be more productive if you’re well; you can be tremendously more productive if your kids are well. Community health is a critical piece to having a great economy in Asheville.”
Despite the system’s up-front cost (about $150,000 for phase one), Health Net’s efficiencies should actually save money over time. Currently, the county and other safety-net providers must eat the cost of treating uninsured patients not enrolled in Medicaid or other programs. The county spends nearly $4 million annually on primary-care services, and 53 percent of the adults who visit the Health Center for such services are uninsured. Health Net should expand enrollment in Medicaid and other assistance programs without requiring additional staff or other resources, county officials contend.
“The payback to the county is two things, I think. One is we can expand services without more tax dollars—that’s the main payback,” says Nelson-Weaver. “The other thing is, we estimate there’s a lot of people out there in our community that qualify for Medicaid [but] don’t have it. So if we can get them signed up, that will create a payment source for them and open a space for someone else.”
About 34,000 county residents are presently enrolled in Medicaid, she reports, adding that roughly 14 percent of county residents live below the poverty level.
“With Health Net, we’ll be able to make the most of our taxpayers’ investment by using tools that help us work smarter and help community members get the results they need,” says Assistant County Manager Mandy Stone, who chairs the Health Net collaborative.
• Ready for their close-up: If you’re a fashion designer or model, you know you’ve made it if you’re featured in Vogue. And if you build houses, finding your creation highlighted in Fine Homebuilding is a sign that you’ve arrived.
That’s good news for Samsel Architects of Asheville, who designed a local house that’s featured in this year’s edition of the magazine’s annual Houses issue. It even made the cover, notes Samsel staffer Celeste Waid. The project, she notes, included many energy-efficient and green components.
It’s not the firm’s first nod from the magazine’s publisher, adds Waid. “Taunton Press has also featured our work in Inside the Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka, and House Transformed by Matthew Schoenherr,” she reports.
• Local employment picture brightens: The Asheville metro area’s unemployment rate headed back downward in March after a few months of increases, according to the latest statistics from the N.C. Employment Security Commission. The March rate came in at 4.4 percent, down from 4.6 percent in February.
Statewide unemployment also saw a slight decline in March, to 5.2 percent.
Of the state’s 14 metropolitan statistical areas, only Durham (4.2 percent) and Raleigh/Cary (4.0 percent) had lower unemployment rates than Asheville in March, according to the commission.