SHERIDAN — A recent grant puts the Sheridan Health Center in a better position to serve a significantly larger number of people in the next few years.
The health center received the three-year grant last month for a total of $185,889.19 from the Wyoming Office of Rural Health, part of the state’s Department of Health. It will allow the Sheridan Health Center to improve several of its behind-the-scenes aspects to have a better chance of receiving a significantly larger federal grant in the future and become a designated Federally Qualified Health Center.
The Sheridan Health Center provides health care and other services at reduced costs to low-income Sheridan County residents ages 18 to 64. The health center relies mainly on local nonprofits and foundations for funding. While those donations are fairly consistent, they are not guaranteed from year to year. If the Sheridan Health Center becomes a FQHC, that would provide reliable, significant funding.
FQHCs receive a grant for about $1.2 million over the first two years and then move to an annual funding contribution. The federal money would allow the health center to hire more physicians and rheumatologists, see a wider range of patients five days per week and possibly open up other healthcare centers in Sheridan County.
Sheridan Health Center Executive Director Wendy Ongaro said the potential federal grant would increase annual patients from 400 to about 1,300.
“The way our healthcare system is set up, there’s this entire category of people who can’t access basic medical care and definitely not preventative care,” Ongaro said. “This funding allows us to set up community health centers that are dedicated to making sure that folks who are low-income and folks who are uninsured can get access to the medical care that they need.”
Ongaro said people not covered by Medicaid make up about two thirds of the health center’s appointments.
“Our patients are the cooks, the housekeepers, the front desk staff at your hotels,” Ongaro said. “That group of employees can’t access health care, and we make sure that they’re well-cared-for, so that they can get to work and do a good job.”
The Sheridan Health Center applied for the same federal funding — officially called a New Access Point grant — in 2016, which would have qualified the health center as an FQHC. The application fell just short.
Over the past two years, the health center has worked on shoring up its weaknesses. The recent state grant will help expedite that process.
Most of the approximate $186,000 will go toward public health consultants at John Snow, Inc. The consultants will help update the center’s information and technology systems, align its legal and financial policies and procedures to federal grant guidelines and perform a needs assessment study so the health center can pinpoint the best areas to spend money in the future.
Steve Carroll, president of the Sheridan Health Center board of directors, was on the board when the grant application was denied in 2016.
“That was a learning curve, so (now) we’re able to get this grant,” Carroll said. “It’s a stepping stone that will be able to help more people.”
In addition to the personal, human aspect associated with treating someone who can’t afford regular health care, Carroll said a federal grant would also benefit the Sheridan County taxpayers by decreasing overall medical costs.
For example, imagine a person with high blood pressure who receives regular treatment and medication at Sheridan Health Center. If the person didn’t receive regular health care, he or she could have a heart attack and require a costly operation in the Sheridan Memorial Hospital emergency room.
Mike McCafferty, CEO of Sheridan Memorial Hospital, said the federal grant would allow the health center to address the long-terms needs of a patients with preventative care, as opposed to Sheridan Memorial, which deals mainly with more immediate medical concerns.
“Our healthcare community is made up in so many differing ways, and people have so many differing needs,” McCafferty said. “People need ongoing care. The Sheridan Health Center provides a much-needed service to the people who really need it the most. This is their day-to-day, hand-to-mouth kind of need for our community.”
Keri Wagner, healthcare workforce and primary care office manager at the Office of Rural Health, said the state grant is effective until September 2021. Sheridan Health Center is also required to send quarterly progress reports to the Office of Rural Health.
Ongaro said the federal New Access Point grant may not become available for at least two years, though it could be open as early as next September. If the grant isn’t available by March 2020, Sheridan Health Center needs to apply for FQHC Look-Alike status.
Wagner said if the health center hasn’t received at least look-alike status after 18 months, the grant would likely be terminated.
Look-alikes don’t receive full federal funding but do have some benefits, including helping pay back employees’ student loans, access to a pharmacy program that would decrease medication costs for patients and reimbursement increases of 30 percent for every Medicaid and Medicare patient they treat.
Jan Cartwright, executive director of the Wyoming Primary Care Association, said many areas in Wyoming lack access to primary care. If the Sheridan Health Center became an FQHC, it would serve as part of the solution for people without insurance or the ability to pay for health care.
Cartwright said there are eight FQHCs in Wyoming, most of which are located in the southern part of the state. The federal grant would provide low-income citizens in Sheridan County with local access to quality health care. Depending where one lives, the closest FQHC is located in either Casper or Powell, which are both at least two hours away.
“A health center in Sheridan would be a real asset to the community and to the state,” Cartwright said.
Ongaro’s goal is to see Sheridan Health Center receive FQHC designation, regardless of how long it takes.
“I am dogged and determined,” she said. “It’s such a powerful model for being able to take resources and have them fit with the needs of a community.”
Changes won’t occur at the Sheridan Health Center right away, but the state grant is a step toward serving a far greater number of citizens in need of health care.