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Amherst Area Community Health Center scheduled to open in 2014 for uninsured

The Amherst Area Community Health Center, which will be staffed by doctors, nurses, dentists and hygienists, is scheduled to open at 100 University Drive in 2014 after more than a decade of planning by regional officials, including representatives from Cooley Dickinson Hospital, the Hilltown Community Health Center and the Amherst Senior Center.

Janet Bunce, a member of the Senior Health Advisory Group at the Amherst Senior Center, told the Council on Aging Thursday that the idea of the community health center is to promote the health of underserved populations and keep people out of hospital emergency rooms.

The clinic, which will take over an existing doctor’s office slated to move to 170 University Drive, will have a laboratory and dental equipment, offer family planning and nutritional counseling and make translators available for people who do not speak English.

Jeffrey Harness, director of Integrated Care and Population Health at Cooley Dickinson Health Care, said there has been wide interest in establishing such a center because needs are not always being filled by traditional medical practices.

“People in this area have been interested in advocating for health access for a while,” Harness said.

People lacking access include the uninsured, poor and immigrants, those who speak English as a second language, and others with behavioral health conditions, Harness said.

State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, who has been involved in the planning of the health center, said some people do not have doctors or even the ability to get into practices which are closed to new patients.

“This is supposed to be a place where people who don’t have a medical home can go and get taken care of,” Story said.

Story compares it to the more limited services offered at the Amherst Survival Center, where retired doctors volunteer their time and give medical care and advice to low-income and homeless individuals.

The doctors and dentists who work at the Amherst Area Community Health Center will be fully paid. Harness said that, as a federally qualified health center, MassHealth and Commonwealth Connector will provide reimbursements for services there, allowing the center to be self-sustaining.

The challenge, Harness said, is getting the money needed to start up the center. The plan is to do extensive fundraising, get some support from Cooley Dickinson and seek foundation grants, he said.

Concepts for the center first developed in the 1990s when members of the Amherst Human Services Network began talking about how to ensure health care for more people. This morphed into Hampshire Health Access and then Hampshire Health Connect, where the underinsured have been referred.

Advocates say many people still are not getting the medical attention they need despite health care reform. The executive directors of the Amherst Survival Center, the Center for New Americans and the town’s veterans agent all expressed concerns that underserved populations remain, Harness said.

Bunce said she will speak with Amherst Senior Center Director Nancy Pagano and Maura Plante, a social worker there, about how senior citizens can benefit from the health center.

A Senior Health Services program already exists, provided by public health nurse Lisa White at the Senior Center, who also visits homebound individuals during her 11-hour work week. But whether the new site will reduce her workload is uncertain.

Harness said the center should take some pressure off the emergency department at Cooley Dickinson. He said that people with diabetes might also be able to go to the center and get assistance accessing fresh food.

“From the hospital’s point of view, we prefer to have health needs met with primary-care physicians,” Harness said.

Story said the center can be seen as an important stopgap measure that will ensure people who are not employed have a place to go.

“I think everyone on this group believes that the ultimate answer to this problem is a single-payer system, but we’re a long way from that,” Story said.

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