News

Oct 27, 2010

First Choice to Build New Health Center


Written by Julia M. Dendinger/News-Bulletin    

If all the hurdles are cleared, 18 months from now residents across the county could have access to more health care services than they have in a long time.

Last Friday, officials from First Choice Community Health Care, the village of Los Lunas, the county and U.S. Rep. Harry Teague (D) gathered to announce and celebrate the funding for a brand new, state-of-the-art, 21,582 square feet health care center in Los Lunas.

The new facility will be built on state land between the village administration building and the Fred Luna Senior Center.

After several years of pursuing funding, FCCH CEO Bob DeFelice announced that the nonprofit company had received a grant for just over $8.1 million to build and equip the facility. The funding was made available through the affordable health care act, DeFelice said, and was applied for through a capital development grant.

"We hope to have this completed in 18 months, maybe a little sooner. There are still a few more hoops to jump through," DeFelice said. "This will be a model for our community, and I know it will have a major impact on the health care state of our citizens."

The new facility will have 18 medical exam rooms, 10 dental rooms and provide mental health services.

"With everything under one roof, we will be able to do warm hand-offs," DeFelice said. "If a pregnant woman comes in and needs dental work, we can walk her over to the dental side and get her connected to services. If during a discussion with their primary care provider, the doctor sees some signs of depression, with the patient's permission, that doctor will walk them over to a behavioristic.

"This kind of collaboration is right for the patient. This 'commons model' should be where medicine is going in primary care."

And not only will there be expanded medical care, DeFelice said the project is anticipated to provide jobs.

During the 10-month construction phase, about 71 full-time equivalent jobs will be created and once the center is operational 23-and-a-half FTEs will be added to the staff, bringing the total to 53 people.

The current First Choice clinic in Los Lunas is more than 20-years old, and at only 4,800 square feet is unable to meet the expanding primary medical needs of the community.

"This will almost triple our capacity for service," DeFelice said. "We are expecting over 165,000 visits annually, which would be an increase of about 10,000 visits at our current location."

He said the number of uninsured visits was expected to increase by 8,500.

While First Choice provides services to everyone regardless of ability to pay, it is by no means strictly a clinic for the indigent.

Los Lunas Village Councilor CeCe Aragon said she was aware of the sliding payment scale First Choice provided to its patients.

"Do you take those with health insurance?" Aragon asked.

DeFelice said community health centers often have the stigma of only being available to people without insurance. He said that while 32 to 35 percent of their clients did not have insurance and did take advantage of the sliding scale, about 10 to 12 percent had private insurance and about 40 percent were on Medicaid and Medicare.

"Our mission is simple — to improve the overall wellness of this community," DeFelice said.

In addition to expanded medical, dental and mental health services, the center will have an after-hours entrance and a demonstration kitchen where patients with dietary issues can be shown how to prepare food.

Valencia County Commissioner Pedro Rael asked if First Choice had any other medical providers it was partnering with on the project now or in the future.

"For example, Presbyterian's long term goal is to have an emergency room at their facility here," Rael said. "That won't effect this project. Do you know if that's coming?"

DeFelice said he didn't know the status of that project.

"But the more access people have to health care, the happier I am," he said. "I have met with Jim Hinton with Presbyterian and Paul Roth from UNM, and we have good working relationships."

Board Chairman Paul Luna pointed out that FCCH doesn't run hospitals, but rather provides primary health care.

"And we hope to do that when this comes. I am thrilled that this is in my hometown," Luna said. "It's a great day today in Valencia County."

Teague called the cooperation between the various entities that brought the project to fruition a prime example of how working together can improve the quality of life in a community.

Los Lunas Village Administrator Peter Fernandez said the land the building will sit on will actually be subleased to First Choice.

The village already leases the property from the state, and Fernandez said the state granted permission for a sublease.

The exact cost of the lease is still in negotiations, Fernandez said, but given the services First Choice provides for low- and no-income patients, he said ultimately it would be "a wash."