Axis Health System qualifies for hefty federal grant

Axis Health System has been designated a Federally Qualified Health Center, making it eligible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funding for start-up and annual costs.

Bern Heath

The funding will help to serve three populations in La Plata County – people who can’t find a primary-care doctor, adults on Medicaid and the under- and uninsured.

The good news, ironically, came on Friday the 13th.

“This really is a pretty big deal,” said Bern Heath, executive director of Axis, who has been pursuing such a grant for four years.

The medically deprived are a major gap in the community, about 20 percent of the population, Heath said.

“The people we’ll serve are at risk of getting primary care in emergency rooms,” Heath said. “It creates a significant burden on existing primary-care resources.

“We’re moving fast,” Heath said. “We hope to have a lease on the lower level of the Riverside Building next to the library this week. We have to see our first patient on or about Jan. 9.”

Heath said the first hires will be two full-time equivalent medical personnel – physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner.

The center will offer primary care, contracted dental services and behavioral/substance abuse treatment by Axis professionals.

The Federally Qualified Health Center, or FQHC, designation brings $733,000 for set-up and operational costs the first year, Heath said. In the future, the center will receive $650,000 annually for operations.

Alamosa-based Valley-Wide Health Systems applied for FQHC status twice but failed each time, Heath said. The practice closed its office in Durango in 2007, leaving hundreds of residents without primary care.

Axis took up the cause, applying for FQHC designation in 2010 when the federal Health Resources and Services Administration had $700 million to fund 350 new FQHCs, Heath said.

But the economic recession, still in full force, brought slumps in funding, leaving less than $100 million to open 68 new FQHCs.

“We had a score that at any other time would have qualified us, but competition was stiff, so we were denied in August 2011,” Heath said.

Axis got back in line in April this year for another round of funding. The good news arrived Friday, Sept. 13.

The concept of FQHCs dates to 1965 legislation to support primary care for Medicaid patients and migrant workers, Heath said. One stipulation applies today, that no one can be turned away regardless of ability to pay.

Axis will start with almost 6,800 square feet of space – the entire lower level of the Riverside Building. Remodeling will be required.

“At the end of the second year, Axis can apply for expansion funding,” Heath said. “The hope is, downstream, to get FQHC status for the Axis health center in Cortez and open an FQHC in Archuleta County.”

The Cortez center houses behavioral health, primary care, wellness and prevention services, he said.

The new Axis center in Durango won’t siphon patients from private primary-care practices, Heath said. In fact, the FQHC could serve Medicare patients turned away by doctors because they bring low reimbursement and monumental paperwork.

Heath is talking to Mercy Regional Medical Center and La Plata Community Clinic officials about how all the practices can mesh. The community clinic opened in January and runs on volunteer services.

“We can use all the primary care we can get,” Heath said. “We’re still a medically underserved area.”