Petaluma Health Center expands and looks to become a 'one-stop shop'

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."

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