For participants in the Athens Health Network meeting last week, the prospect of a grant from a major foundation sparked a lively discussion about what the organization’s priorities would be if they were handed a blank check.
No one is actually offering a blank check.
But a potential $25,000 grant from the Kaiser Foundation was enough to start a lively conversation and about what stepping stones could be placed, using that amount of new funding, toward a the new and better health landscape for Athens.
The overture from the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Georgia comes just two months after Kaiser Permanente – which operates independently of the grant-making foundation –announced that it would be opening a new medical facility on West Broad Street in January 2012.
For the Athens Health Network, the possibility of support from a major foundation meant a chance to dream a little, to reimagine what the local healthcare landscape could look like if conditions remain favorable
The Athens Health Network consists of medical professionals and community advocates who are interested in reducing health disparities that cause low-income Athenians to lead shorter, less healthy lives than their wealthier neighbors. The ANH grew out of the OneAthens initiative, a broad-based effort to address the fact that 30 percent of local families live below the federal poverty level.
One spot at the AHN table is reserved for the Athens Nurses Clinic, a free clinic in Athens that offers basic medical and dental care for indigent, uninsured or underinsured people.
The organization “is trying to look at the broad picture of Athens-Clarke County, what are the disparities in healthcare, what will or will not take place with healthcare reform and what can we do in the meantime to help those who aren’t getting care,” said Paige Cummings, director of the Nurses Clinic.
Two factors come together to make health care less equitable in Athens than in some other communities, said Cummings. First, there are large populations of highly skilled and unskilled workers, with very few in the middle. Second, there are thousands of students with access to healthcare through UGA, and they are less costly for businesses to hire than locals who need benefits. This shuts many local people out of jobs.
Another factor is that Medicaid eligibility is more difficult to establish than people might think. Very few people are actually eligible for Medicaid, regardless of their income.
“It’s not just a matter of not having money. We saw 1,070 patients last year. Their income was all less than 150 percent of federal poverty level and none of them were qualified for Medicaid,” Cummings said.
Delene Porter brought news of Kaiser’s overture to the AHN board members last week. Porter, who has worked with OneAthens since its inception, is now CEO and president of the Athens Area Community Foundation. This group serves as the bridge between local organizations in need of funding and interested investors and philanthropists.
She was the one that the Kaiser Foundation reached out to.
“They were really excited about the collaboration that’s starting to develop under the umbrella of the Athens Health Network,” she said, adding that the Kaiser Foundation has also made donations in other Atlanta-area communities with new Kaiser Permanente facilities.
The AHN board settled on four stepping stones toward a dream landscape that could be placed for $25,000. They want to hire consultants to create a health assurance plan for the community, expand an existing program that trains lay health educators, speed implementation of the health information exchange system that will connect area clinics, and develop a system for timely gathering and reporting of Athens area health statistics.
There was excitement in the air during the discussion.
The people around the table, Porter said, “don’t get to spend a lot of time dreaming,”
Before the health network was organized, its members operated independently – even competitively – in the same relatively small community.
“It was a leap of faith for these agencies to sit at the table together in the first place,” Porter said. Some needed reassurance that “the health network is not here to compete for funds, it’s here to really build your connections with one another, build your capacity so you’re helping your patients more.”
The overture from Kaiser Foundation was the first tangible evidence that this is true.
Cummings believes that the potential grant could benefit the quality of care and cut overall health expenditures in Athens. Her clinic serves more than 1,000 people, and ”one of the things we do for these 1,000 patients is we keep them out of the emergency room, except when they have a true emergency.”
Despite the challenges that lay ahead, Porter is optimistic about the future of health care in the area.
“I think Athens could really be poised to be that ideal world,” said Porter. “With the moving in of the medical college, we’re definitely on the eve of a medical revolution, both in terms of job creation, which is really exciting and desperately needed for the community, but also in terms of service and efficiency.”
AHN and the Athens Area Community Foundation have sent their proposal to Kaiser and expect a response soon. If awarded, the money would become available for use at the end of the 2011.