Buncombe County to hand off health care services to local nonprofit

Buncombe County has taken another step toward handing a local nonprofit the job of providing primary health care to indigent and uninsured children and adults.

The county announced Nov. 17 that it had reached a formal agreement with Western North Carolina Community Health Services to provide basic access to health care for about 10,000 patients now served by the Buncombe County Health Center. Contracting with Community Health Services will give an additional 5,000 people access to the local health-care "safety net" for the same amount of the money the county's spending now, officials say.

That's because, as a federally qualified health clinic, the nonprofit gets significantly higher Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements than the county Health Department. In a March report to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, Department of Social Services Director Mandy Stone said it would cost the county $6 million a year to serve its current patient load plus another 5,000 needy patients, whereas Community Health Services could do it for $3 million.

And the need is definitely there. Local demand for services has been on the rise because of the rising cost of health care and the tough economy, says Buncombe County Health Director Gibbie Harris, adding, "We're pleased WNCCHS is working with us to expand access to services."

The nonprofit, which has been providing health care in Asheville for 15 years, will begin serving former Health Center patients Jan. 4 at two locations. An office on Ridgelawn Road in West Asheville will serve families and children; another one at 257 Biltmore Ave. will serve adults, says Harris. Both sites will provide lab and pharmacy services, dental care, urgent care and behavioral health services.

Harris said that most of the 80 or so county Health Department employees will now work for Community Health Services, she explains; some employees are retiring, and others will stay on at the Health Department.

The change, says Harris, will also enable the Health Department to focus more on improving other core services, such as tackling communicable diseases, offering prenatal and family-planning services, breast and cervical cancer screenings, and a nutrition program for women and children. Once the move takes place, the county agency will officially change its name to the Buncombe County Department of Health.

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