Montana held a grand opening for the nation’s first state-run health clinic for public employees Thursday in Helena.
Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer toured the facility he says will keep the immediate area’s 11-thousand state workers and their dependents healthier while saving the state millions of dollars over the next few years.
“We’re completely full,” Schweitzer said about the Friday schedule, the clinic’s first day seeing patients.
He unveiled his plan for opening state employee health clinics back in February, and then set an aggressive schedule to have the first one open by late Summer. The administration’s proposal has several other clinics opening in other major Montana communities later.
The state is contracting with the private, Tennessee-based, company Care Here to operate the clinic with Montana employees. Physician Assistant Cassie Springer says she wanted to work at the clinic because she respects the facility’s preventive care model. Patients pay no co-pay or deductible.
The staff wants to get state employees in to see a physician early to catch problems before they get worse.
“We’re looking at bringing in patients regularly, staying on top of their healthcare,” she said. The state saves money if this prevents more costly treatments or emergency room visits down the line.
Health Care and Benefits Division Administrator in the Montana Department of Administration Russ Hill says a state analysis of the entire health clinic proposal shows Montana saving $100 million dollars over the next five years “based on full implementation for all clinics across the state.”
Governor Schweitzer says he’s been fielding attacks about his idea as government run health care.
“The first attacks were something about Obamacare. Well this has nothing to do with the Affordable Care Act,” Schweitzer said. “The only thing this has to do with the Affordable Care Act is we are challenging expenses here in Montana because they didn’t challenge expenses in Washington D.C.”
Schweitzer says this is an idea from the private sector. Companies like Google, Cisco, and Boeing use this on-site clinic model with their employees.
Healthcare consultant Mike La Penna has been researching the on-site clinic industry for the last decade, recently publishing a book on the subject.
He says counties and cities in other parts of the country have opened similar clinics, but never before on the state level.
“This is a game changer,” La Penna said. “Other state’s will be watching this closely.”
Helena Republican State Senator Dave Lewis has problems with the program. Not necessarily with this first clinic itself, he says it looks great. But it’s a big change, and Lewis does not think this kind of decision should be able to be made without legislative approval.
“The issue is whether or not a governor unilaterally has the authority to make that kind of policy change,” Lewis said. He is pursuing a bill for the next Legislature which would prevent that type of authority for the governor’s office in the future.
Schweitzer will be leaving office at the end of this year due to term limits.