EMHS, Wal-Mart opening clinics

Posted June 18, 2009, at 8:49 p.m.

BREWER, Maine — Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems expects to team up with Wal-Mart to open health care clinics at some stores in the EMHS service area before the end of this year.

The pending partnership was announced at the annual meeting Thursday of the EMHS corporators, a group charged with providing community oversight of the organization and its affiliates.

EMHS President and Chief Executive Officer Michelle Hood told the group that the decision to contract with Wal-Mart to staff the in-store clinics is an example of “leadership and agility” in the organization.

After the meeting, Hood said it was only a matter of time before Wal-Mart brought in-store clinics to Maine.

“We wanted to be sure that if it came to our part of the state, we would be involved,” she said. Hood said talks are still under way with the retail giant, but that it appears that clinical staff from EMHS affiliates will staff the small clinics.

A spokeswoman from Wal-Mart said the company was “making no announcements at this time” regarding clinics in Maine. The clinics, which are popular in many other states, have not found their way to any stores in New England, she said. There are 24 Wal-Mart stores and one distribution center in Maine.

Speaking after the meeting, Dr. Erik Steele, chief medical officer for EMHS, said clinics located inside retail stores can make it easier for consumers to get access to basic health care. Patients with minor medical needs who don’t have their own primary care providers — about 30 percent of all Americans don’t — can be seen conveniently and inexpensively at such sites, he said. The more people who seek care in such settings, the less pressure is put on overwhelmed and expensive hospital emergency rooms, which many people use for nonemergency care, Steele said.

But in-store clinics can work against the current thinking in the U.S. medical community that all patients be affiliated with a community primary care office that maintains comprehensive health records, coordinates care and makes referrals to specialists as needed, he acknowledged.

Other topics covered at the annual meeting included clinical milestones of the past year, such as the expansion of patient care technology, the standardization of treatment protocols, and the implementation of a program that helps patients purchase medications at a lower cost. The past year also saw the retirement of Acadia Hospital CEO and President Dottie Hill.

Hood discussed upcoming challenges for health care systems in Maine, including changing Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, tighter regulation of private insurance companies, and the Obama administration’s commitment to overhauling the way health care is delivered nationally. Taken in combination with the steep economic recession of the past year, she said, all health care providers must look for effective ways to hold down costs and generate new sources of revenue.

On the topic of the health care work force, Hood said nurses, physicians, pharmacists and respiratory therapists are among the professionals in short supply in northern Maine. She spoke of a growing trend toward giving patients a greater role in determining their care and the need to promote “health care literacy” within the general public.

Because of its nonprofit status, EMHS and its nonprofit affiliates are required to report each year on the value of their “community benefits,” including public health activities, education, charitable contributions and subsidized health services. The systemwide community benefits reported at Thursday’s meeting were valued at $57,213,978 for the first six months of the current EMHS fiscal year, which started Oct. 1, 2008.

EMHS is the corporate parent of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, The Acadia Hospital in Bangor, The Aroostook Medical Center in Presque Isle, Blue Hill Memorial Hospital, C.A. Dean Memorial Hospital & Nursing Home in Greenville, Inland Hospital in Waterville and Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield. It also is the parent of numerous outpatient medical practices, nursing homes and health-related entities in the northern half of Maine.

Steele also serves as the interim CEO and president at the Blue Hill hospital, which has recently experienced severe financial hardship that has resulted in staff layoffs, executive pay cuts and the discontinuation of its birthing and obstetrical services. He said the 28-bed hospital’s finances are stabilizing.

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