Dr. Heidi Gunn chatted with a patient, teacher Dawn Cherwinka, during an appointment at the Farmington district’s health clinic.

Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

A doctor for teachers, just steps from the classroom

  • Article by: SARAH LEMAGIE
  • Star Tribune
  • October 25, 2011 - 4:03 PM

When Lisa Peters' finger started swelling after she was bitten by an abandoned kitten on her farm last month, the Farmington High School teacher figured she should seek medical attention.

At most other metro-area schools, "I would have probably had to take the day off and go to a clinic," she said.

Instead, Peters got a tetanus shot without leaving the building, at the employee health clinic that the school district opened this year.

For employees, the new clinic is a convenient place to seek basic medical care and fill common prescriptions -- at no out-of-pocket cost. For their part, district leaders hope it will save money in an era of tight budgets and rising health care costs.

"There's so many ways that this is less expensive," said Farmington Superintendent Jay Haugen.

District leaders hope the clinic will help employees avoid health problems or catch them earlier, when they're often cheaper to treat. And by diverting some insurance claims that employees would otherwise make, the district hopes to reduce its premiums.

Workplace clinics have been tried in past decades but are making a comeback as employers seek new ways to control costs, boost productivity and retain workers.

"Over the past five to seven years it's been a fairly steady and, I would claim, an accelerating trend," said Dr. Bruce Hochstadt, who specializes in on-site clinics for Mercer, an international benefits consulting firm.

While many factories have long maintained occupational health clinics for work-related injuries, many new on-site clinics focus on wellness and primary care.

Nor are the clinics limited to behemoths such as General Mills and 3M. The Farmington district, for example, provides health insurance to about 600 employees.

Some critics have raised privacy concerns when employers and medical clinics are so closely linked, but providers in Farmington and elsewhere point out that federal law protects patient confidentiality.

At the new Farmington clinic, district employees and dependents over age 5 can get flu shots, stitches, physical exams and help managing chronic conditions such as diabetes and high cholesterol, among other services. The clinic also stocks about 30 generic medications, giving patients an inexpensive way to fill prescriptions.

The clinic is run by NeoPath Health, a Twin Cities startup whose first client was the Brooklyn Center School District. Robbinsdale schools teamed up with NeoPath this month. And Minneapolis Public Schools is partnering with its insurance provider, HealthPartners, on an employee clinic that's slated to open next summer at its new district office.

"I think you're going to see an explosion of school districts doing this," Haugen said.

A hedge against rising costs

Farmington got serious about opening the clinic around the time that its former health insurance provider said the district's premiums were on track to go up by 24 percent in one year, said MaryAnn Thomas, the district's human resources director. Instead, the district switched to a new provider, Medica.

This year, the district expects to pay about $5.8 million in health insurance premiums.

The district pays NeoPath a monthly fee of about $16,000, plus an estimated annual bill of $40,000 to stock the clinic.

At the clinic, a NeoPath physician sees patients one day a week, and a licensed practical nurse is on-site two days a week. A Medica health coach also visits once a month to consult about issues such as how to lose weight or quit smoking.

Employees still have regular health insurance through the school district, and NeoPath isn't trying to break existing relationships between patients and their doctors, said company President Joe McErlane.

"If you have a great relationship with a doctor already, I don't want to disrupt that at all," he said. But surveys show that many workers don't have a primary doctor, he said. "We rely on urgent care. We rely on the emergency room."

Lots of personal attention

With half-hour appointments and consultations via e-mail, phone or webcam when she's not in the clinic, NeoPath's Dr. Heidi Gunn said she's able to give patients as much personal attention, and often more, as other doctors can in their own offices.

Gunn, who joined NeoPath after 10 years of family practice in Little Falls, Minn., makes a point of chatting with patients to identify other potential health issues.

"Sometimes those 'by the ways' end up being big things," Gunn said.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-746-3284

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