SHERIDAN — The Sheridan Health Center, which provides medical services to low-income adults, released its annual report last week and reported that it saw an increase in demand for its services over the past year.
Overall, the clinic saw 317 patients — 158 of whom were new — who made a total of 1,319 visits throughout the year.
That increase came during a year when Sheridan Memorial Hospital reported it saw a nearly 40 percent increase in uninsured patients seeking emergency care.
The hospital has not been able to find a definitive explanation for why so many uninsured patients are coming through its doors, and it is unclear whether SHC’s increased patient load is connected to that trend.
SHC Executive Director Wendy Ongaro said it is too early to tell whether the clinic is seeing more patients because more people in the community are uninsured, noting the center also added staff over the past year, which meant it was better equipped to treat more patients.
Ongaro did say, however, that SHC is working with the hospital, which she said hopes the clinic will expand and work with more uninsured patients before they need emergency care. Through working with more patients, SHC can also help uninsured patients who qualify for health insurance apply for it.
“What we’re really good at is finding resources for folks,” Ongaro said.
SHC has forged two partnerships that it hopes will connect more patients to resources and, when possible, help them apply for insurance. The first is a partnership with Community Connections, a county-wide program that connects people with social services; and the second is a partnership with Enroll Wyoming, which is a nonprofit group that helps residents navigate the health insurance marketplace and obtain health care through the Affordable Care Act.
Cynthia Nunley, a navigator with Enroll Wyoming, said while she is not sure whether the overall number of uninsured Wyoming residents has increased, her organization saw a dip in the number of people it enrolled last year.
“I’ve worked with Enroll Wyoming since the beginning and we have seen an increase in the number of people insured every year except last year,” Nunley said.
One of the reasons Nunley thinks enrollment may have dropped is simply confusion over which resources are available to patients. Over the past year, lawmakers in Congress have talked about replacing the Affordable Care Act, though they have not, and repealed the ACA’s individual mandate, which penalized people who do not enroll to receive health care, but that repeal does not take effect until January 2019.
“That is part of the confusion,” Nunley said. “Frankly, we’ve tried not to be concerned with that. We just want to get good information out to consumers under the assumption that if people could get affordable health insurance, they will choose to do that.”
Despite the confusion, Nunley said some of the changes at the federal level have made insurance cheaper for people in certain income brackets, but most people are not aware that they qualify.
“A lot of people did not understand just how much income you can have and still qualify to get the discounts,” Nunley said.
Partnerships with local health centers like the SHC helps Enroll Wyoming, which currently has only two navigators available to travel throughout the state, expand its reach.
With the increased demand for its services, the SHC hopes it will be able to expand significantly in coming years. The clinic is preparing to apply to become a Federally Qualified Health Center, which would qualify it to receive a range of benefits and more federal funding.
Jan Cartwright, executive director of the Wyoming Primary Care Association, said the Health Resources and Services Administration periodically releases a request for proposals asking health centers to apply for the Federally Qualified Health Center designation.
She noted, though, that there is no timeline as to when the HRSA will release its next RFP.
To ensure SHC is prepared, the Wyoming Primary Care Association is currently working with the clinic so that it is ready whenever the HRSA solicits the next round of applications.
SHC would increase its chances of winning the federal grant considerably if it were able to open full time and treat a broader pool of patients. The first step in doing that would be hiring more staff.
SHC is currently fundraising in the hopes it can put together a salary for a full-time nurse practitioner, which would allow it to open four days a week — the clinic currently only sees patients on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Eventually, Ongaro said she hopes the clinic will be able to treat patients five days a week.
Adding the nurse practitioner could also allow the center to start treating children and seniors, age groups it does not currently have the capacity to treat.
Achieving that designation would be critical in helping the SHC meet the increased demand for its services. And though the reasons for that demand may not be entirely clear, the SHC is working to accommodate it.