Safety Net Clinics Campaign for Jobs

August 19, 2011

Across Colorado, a network of more than a hundred community health clinics will see anyone, regardless of their ability to pay. And they’re planning to see a lot more people. They've just announced a campaign to hire 5,000 more staff in the next three years. CPR Health Reporter Eric Whitney says finding the money to hire them might be a bigger challenge than getting enough qualified applicants.

CPR HEALTH REPORTER ERIC WHITNEY: Walk into a community health clinic in Colorado, like Salud Family Clinic in Commerce City, and it'll be busy.

Dr. Tillman Farley, who oversees Salud's nine clinics north of Denver jokes that demand for affordable health care is endless.

DR. TILlMAN FARLEY, MEDICAL DIRECTOR, SALUD FAMILY CLINICS: Yeah, endless. There's far more demand than we can currently serve.

REPORTER: And that demand is only projected to go up, especially as the federal Affordable Care Act passed last year continues to roll out. Even if the Supreme Court strikes down part or all of the law, people are still going to need the primary care that these clinics offer, and that's getting harder to find.

Colorado's community clinics are launching a campaign to double the number of people they can see by 2014. That means hiring 5,000 new workers. They’ve set up a website to recruit. It features testimonials from people who already work at community clinics, like dentist Dr. Derek Petersen.

DR. DEREK PETERSEN: Our facility's absolutely wonderful, it's recently remodeled, it's got all the best equipment that I could even ask for. So I couldn't ask for a better place to practice.

REPORTER: The facilities should be nice. The federal government has poured $36 million  into Colorado community clinics in the last two years. A little less than half of that was stimulus money from the Recovery Act, the rest is from the Affordable Care Act. Foundations have kicked in more than $18 million.

Dr. Farley, at the Salud clinic in Commerce City, shows off the whole new wing of that clinic, enough space to see twice as many patients as they can now. That is, if they had the people to staff it.

REPORTER: So we're just in a big empty room right now, right?

FARLEY : Right, this is an unfurnished but completley otherwise built-out medical clinic, this could cover easily 10,000 patients a year.

REPORTER: Why'd you build such a big building when you don't have enough people to staff it?

FARLEY: We thought we had the funding, it was all in hand. I mean, that 2011 funding was authorized and appropriated to us, but then it was part of the current fiscal year budget cut. So it was pulled away at the last minute.

REPORTER: That’s a tough environment to recruit in – where money from Washington is constantly subject to being withdrawn in budget cutting deals.

Colorado’s community clinics need $362 million a year to hire the new staff for their planned expansion.

And they can't really expect their patients to pick up the tab. Nearly half  are uninsured.They pay on a sliding scale that doesn't necessarily cover costs. Another 40 percent of patients have Medicaid, which covers their costs, but with nothing to spare.
Dr. Farley says, in theory, community clinics could boost their revenue by trying to get more patients with private insurance, but -

FARLEY: we also very closely weigh that option, because we don't want an insured patient to displace an uninusured patient.


REPORTER: Now, the federal health care law is supposed to nearly eliminate the uninsured come 2014. Its requirement that nearly all Americans buy health insurance is part of that, but that doesn't mean that all those uninsured patients clinics like this one see now will suddenly start showing up with gold-plated private coverage. A big number of the uninsured are going to be put into a newly-expanded Medicaid.
So bottom line, says community clinics spokesperson Maureen Maxwell, is even after the health care law is fully implemented, health centers shouldn't expect to get more than about 20 percent of their income from Washington.

MAUREEN MAXWELL: Yes community health centers will need to continue to look to other sources, there are several foundations that have been very supportive of Colorado community health centers, there are local businesses and individuals. All of those will play a role in continued funding.

REPORTER: So the community clinics' campaign to hire 5,000 new workers isn't just about finding qualified doctors, nurses and other staff, it's about raising upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars a year to pay them, too.

[Photo: CPR/Eric Whitney]

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