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Recovery room 

Health clinics get word of new federal funds atop state OK.

Three Community Health Centers in Arkansas have had a run of good luck in the past several weeks. First, the state legislature enacted a tax hike on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to provide $25 million over the next two fiscal years to the state's 12 CHC non-profits for infrastructure, equipment and personnel needs. Each of the 12 centers, which operate 47 clinics, will get a grant of $250,000 for capital improvements and will be eligible for operational grants from the state Department of Health. The grants will be the first across-the-board state support of the clinics, which operate with federal funds to provide health care in areas of the state with few doctors and a large number of uninsured residents.

Last week, the federal government announced that St. Francis House NWA Inc., the East Arkansas Family Health Center and White River Rural Health Center Inc. will receive a total of $3.3 million in Recovery Act funds — the Obama stimulus package — to open clinics in Siloam Springs, England and Blytheville.

The awards were made to clinics who'd applied for grants last year but were denied when federal Health Resources and Services Administration funds ran out.

Kathy Grisham, director of the St. Francis CHC, which won a $1.3 million grant ($650,000 for each of two years), said funding requires that the CHC begin seeing patients within 120 days. St. Francis will begin advertising immediately for clinical and support staff for the Siloam Springs clinic, which will expand a smaller clinic already in place and triple its staff. Grisham expects the clinic will serve 4,500 patients within two years.

St. Francis, with clinics in Rogers and Springdale, saw 14,527 patients in 2008; only 3 percent had health insurance. “There are 80,000 people without health insurance in Northwest Arkansas,” Grisham said. “That's who we're trying to reach.” St. Francis will use state support to try to pay market rates to staff, some of whom haven't had a raiase in five years, Grisham said.

Dr. Steve Collier, a physician who heads the White River center, said the nearly $1.3 million in Recovery Act dollars awarded that CHC will create a clinic in England next to the county-funded England Wellness Center. The White River CHC is the state's largest, with 19 satellites in 11 counties. White River will use its state funding to add new clinics in south Jonesboro and Batesville. “At White River, our deal is for growth and expansion of services and access points.”

The East Arkansas Family Health Center will use its $739,294 Recovery Act funding to open a clinic in a medical facility on the old Blytheville airbase. The clinic will have six exam rooms and three dental operatories, director Dr. Susan Ward Jones said. “It's a bit isolated, but we feel we can capture the retired and uninsured,” she said.

Jones, who grew up in Helena, moved to the West Memphis CHC to pay off her medical school loans and never left. That's uncommon for medical professionals, with Memphis and higher wages so close; she said the CHC will use its state funds to recruit and help keep the providers it now employs. She needs to hire a staff of 10 for the new clinic. As all of the rural clinics find, “that's going to be the difficult part,” she said.

St. Francis' Grisham is the new head of a compliance committee for the board of the Community Health Centers of Arkansas, which provides training to the clinical non-profits. The committee was created after one of the centers, the Lee County Cooperative Clinic, was nearly closed by HRSA because of irregularities in spending. The board of that clinic is now the subject of two lawsuits alleging Freedom of Information Act violations and voting irregularities; the clinic is operating with a one-year grant.

What happened with the Lee County clinic “puts us all under scrutiny,” Grisham said. The committee will require better oversight over center operations and communication from the federal funding agency.

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