During a time when healthcare reform has hospitals and physicians concerned about their financial stability, nonprofit health centers — including the Petaluma Health Center — are flourishing.

While for-profit practitioners are forecasting a dramatic drop in insurance reimbursement rates under the federal Affordable Care Act, the Petaluma Health Center is bracing for a dramatic rise in patient numbers as a whole new segment of the community gains access to health insurance. According to Kathy Powell, executive director of the Petaluma Health Center, the clinic currently accepts all patients who visit, meaning it treats many people for free. But now, regardless of lower reimbursements, Powell says the influx of patients with state subsidized insurance will mean more revenue than the center is currently receiving.

Powell said that because hospitals primarily offer acute and inpatient care, their costs are much higher than those of the health center's, which only provides outpatient and wellness care. She added that a goal of health reform is to reduce costly payments to hospitals.

"With health reform, so many more people are going to have coverage, but the insurance payments made to doctors are going to be less per patient," said Powell. "So for hospitals and a lot of private physicians, they're concerned about how much they'll be paid. But for us, the problem is actually having enough providers to care for all people who are newly covered."

To meet a patient load expected to grow by as much as 5,000 people over the next few years, the Petaluma Health Center recently hired five new health care providers, including two physicians, a psychologist and two physician assistants. Dr. Jose Chibras, one of the newly hired doctors, said health reform signals a shift in the way medicine is practiced in America, away from an illness-based model over to a wellness-based model. In the wellness-based model, healthy living and avoiding the doctor as much as possible is emphasized.

"It's about preventing sickness and promoting wellness," said Chibras. "The for-profit model is very different because it's focused on making money by how often you fill your hospital or office. This is the first time that healthcare has been focused on keeping people healthy so that they don't need the expensive treatments."

Chibras, who recently came to Petaluma after spending the past 15 years working in Santa Cruz County, said that the health center's approach to treating the root causes of illness, rather than managing symptoms, is groundbreaking.

"The work the health center is doing is a model for the rest of the country," he added.

Part of what makes the Petaluma Health Center a health care leader — aside from its brand-new 53,000 square-foot, state-of-the art facility on North McDowell Boulevard that was primarily funded by a $9 million Affordable Care Act federal grant — is the efforts by the center to become what Powell and many others call a patient's "health home."

"A &‘health home' is a place where an individual can go with any of their health care needs and have them all met in one office," explained Powell. "If you need a nutritionist, you could actually see them when you're there to see your primary care physician. If someone comes in with acute panic attacks, they can see a psychiatrist when they're there for a wellness visit. We even have dentists on staff."

In fact, the Petaluma Health Center offers primary care, OB/GYN services, mental health services and has a full dentist office along with a urologist office, all housed in one building. The center even has financial representatives to help patients navigate the murky waters of the new insurance programs.

When asked how it could afford to bring on additional staff, including specialists, Powell said that the center is very strong financially and that the volume of patients it sees makes their newest hires possible. "Everyone we hire makes money for the center because they can see more patients," Powell said.

Dr. Carlin Chi, another new hire by the Petaluma Health Center, said that not only does the health center offer convenience, it also approaches medicine holistically, offering patients a place to be treated completely and with nontraditional medical options as well.

"It's a place where patients can get all kinds of help with different things," she said.

The staff is offered some of these amenities as well, including massages, meditation and group exercise classes during their lunch hours. These offerings fit with the calm environment the center offers: Employee art adorns the walls and rooms sport names like "Serenity."

Powell said that every inch of the facility is currently being used, which has forced the center to look at completing 10,000 square-feet of unfinished space on the backside of the building. Once finished, the space will house the California Women, Infants and Children program, also known as WIC. Powell estimates the cost of finishing the building at approximately $3 million and is currently soliciting grants to help meet that need.

For more information, visit www.phealthcenter.org.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)