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Health center on hold, but report provides project’s roadmap

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BEMIDJI – An effort aiming to establish a health center to serve underinsured and uninsured low-income residents was curtailed this year when Congress cut funding available for their creation.

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Local supporters, however, still plan to move forward. They have developed a plan to improve the care offered to that target population.

“(The process) didn’t end where we wanted it to necessarily, but, at the same time, there were a lot of good results,” said Jeanne Edevold Larson, executive director of the Northern Dental Access Center.

Edevold Larson was among about 50 people involved in a 10-month-long process of investigation, data collection and surveys for a communitywide health care assessment. Collaborating partners included Sanford Health, Beltrami Area Service Collaborative, Beltrami County Health and Human Services, United Way of Bemidji Area, and Community Resource Connections.

Funding for that process was an $80,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Health to research and plan for a community health center for low-income residents.

A meeting Friday allowed for the presentation of a “final report” to the community, though Edevold Larson stressed that the report was not the end of the project.

“We really see this as the beginning and a road map,” she said. 

Initially, the goal was to establish a Federally Qualified Health Center. FQHCs, which must be located in or serve high-need communities, receive several benefits from the federal government, such as grants and cost-based reimbursements for services to Medicare patients.

The Minnesota Association of Community Health Centers has identified Bemidji/Beltrami County as having unmet health care needs and no community health center available to meet them.

But Congress this past spring cut funding for the creation of such centers and changed the requirements that would allow for their creation.

A communitywide health assessment showed the Bemidji and Beltrami County area has a robust health care infrastructure but continuity and fragmentation of care needs to be improved.

“There really is a desire to have some improved way to reach people who are marginalized, underinsured and uninsured,” Edevold Larson said.

The planning team has identified a plan for moving forward. Northern Dental Access Center will work with its partners to expand its offerings through a multi-year, phased approach. The center, which already offers insurance counseling and child/teen checkups and immunizations, will have a health coordinator on site and expanded patient advocacy. Services will include mental health screenings, case management, nutrition therapy, chemical-dependency assessments and smoking cessation support.

Future phases would include outreach efforts to those in the target population, additional screenings, partnerships, wellness services and more.

“We believe we can develop a community-based solution,” Edevold Larson said. “It’s going to happen in baby steps, in phases.”

Edevold Larson said it was expected that 600 new FQHCs would be created, but Congress’ cuts scaled that back to 67. It now is projected that up to 25 new centers could be created this year, but to apply, a center must have several years’ worth of proven results.

“For us to be ready for that … we need to have something that is running that we can show works,” Edevold Larson said. “

The assessment and grant work, she said, has created a solid foundation that can be used to seek other grants and funding sources.

“Having done this (the assessment) is a really big achievement for our community,” Edevold Larson said.

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