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Kansas Safety Net Clinics Seek New Sites

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Even with the Affordable Care Act, millions of Americans still lack health insurance.

For them, safety net clinics are a lifeline. These clinics provide primary care for anyone, regardless of their ability to pay.

Today, there are federally funded clinics in 21 Kansas counties, but there soon could be more.

At least six organizations in Kansas are asking the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for grants to open new clinics. GraceMed, in Wichita, is asking for $650,000 for a new clinic on the south side of the city. CEO David Sanford says that part of the state’s largest city is underserved.

“Areas kind of in the southern part of the county have very few if any doctor’s offices or dental offices,” Sanford says.

The Greater Wichita YMCA has given GraceMed a little more than four acres of land on the Y’s south campus to build the clinic.

“Medical, dental, pharmacy, vision services, integrated behavioral health. At full capacity, we anticipate serving about 17,000 unduplicated patients per year,” Sanford says.

That would increase the number of patients GraceMed serves at its eight current locations by half.

The Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas also is seeking a $650,000 grant. The Pittsburg-based organization serves 40,000 patients through clinics in six counties. But Douglas Stuckey, its chief financial officer, says part of the region remains underserved.

“And if you look at the ratio of underserved people, we’ve basically got a donut —and right in the middle is Labette County and Parsons,” Stuckey says.

About 1,000 patients from the Parsons area seek care at his organization’s clinics in Pittsburg and Coffeyville — a distance of about 40 miles either way — and that’s just a fraction of the unmet need, according to Stuckey.

“And if they don’t have transportation to get to Pittsburg or Coffeyville, they either go without, or there is a couple small, free clinics in Parsons, but they’re not open all the time,” Stuckey says.

He estimates a new clinic in Parsons would provide health care to nearly 5,000 uninsured and low-income people a year.

The nonprofit organization that runs clinics in Olathe and Paola also is seeking expansion money. The Health Partnership Clinic wants to establish a new clinic in an abandoned Wal-Mart store in Ottawa. The entire $650,000 federal grant would go for operational costs.

CEO Jason Wesco says the vast majority of low-income residents in Franklin County appears to be dispensing with health care, in part because the state hasn’t expanded Medicaid eligibility.

“We have patients who both earn too much money for Medicaid, which is very restrictive in Kansas, and they’re too poor to apply for the health insurance marketplace,” Wesco says. “The only way that we can meaningfully expand primary care services like we provide is new access point grants.”

The grants are funded by the Affordable Care Act, but there’s only enough money to fund about 150 of the 800 to 900 applications. Wesco had hoped Sen. Pat Roberts would help give the Ottawa application a competitive edge. But Roberts declined to provide a letter of support because he opposes the health care reform law.

“They favored abolition of the Affordable Care Act and could not support our efforts,” Wesco says. “Clearly, we’re disappointed to hear that, because this is really our only way to get his constituents — many of which don’t have insurance — access to really high-quality care.”

The current round of grant applications is seen as particularly important because there may be less — perhaps even no — money for clinic expansions in the future. That’s because the Republicans who will control both houses of Congress next year are intent on repealing funding for parts of the reform law, if not the entire law.

That means Wesco and the other Kansas clinic directors seeking grants have several anxious months ahead of them. Decisions about which grants will be funded aren’t expected until May.

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