Credit: Courtesy of Central Maine Healthcare

Central Maine Healthcare will open its second urgent care center in Lewiston in February 2020 or earlier, creating 20 new jobs and lower cost health care for the local community.

Maine Urgent Care is under construction at 685 Sabattus St. across from the Hannaford supermarket. It follows the health care system’s first urgent care center that opened in Topsham last September. The hospital system plans two or more additional urgent care centers in the coming few years.

The new center marks a turning point for Central Maine Healthcare, which in July said it had stopped the bleeding of profits and outflow of disgruntled staff and was growing steadily in revenues and patient numbers. CEO Jeff Brickman, who joined the health system in 2016 when it was losing $2 million to $3 million a month, said it’s good to be expanding the hospital again.

“This is an indication of how we’ve stabilized our base after an interesting three-year turnaround that has challenged this organization to find its place within the state,” Brickman said. “Now that we have reached that point of stability, we’re moving from just trying to keep our basic function viable to now looking to grow our footprint.”

Central Maine Healthcare had an urgent care center in Auburn three years ago, but it closed after 9 months of operations and no profits.

“We had a model that wasn’t working and we made a commitment that we would figure it out and come back to the Lewiston-Auburn area when we did,” Brickman said.

The Auburn location was too expensive because it tried to mimic how an emergency room with physicians operated rather than a leaner urgent care center staffed by nurse practitioners, physician assistants, medical assistants, radiology technicians, administrative staff and an on-call physician, he said.

“Whether you need to be seen for life’s everyday bumps and bruises, a flu shot, or even something more emergent, you don’t need to schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or wait in an emergency room,” said Melissa Caccamo, Central Maine Healthcare’s system director of ambulatory and retail services. The cost outside of a hospital is lower as well.

Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston runs three hospitals in Maine and a network of affiliated doctors offices and practices. The hospitals are Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Rumford Hospital and Bridgton Hospital.

A typical visit to an emergency room at the hospital would cost a patient more than $1,000. But an urgent care facility would charge $150 to $160, Brickman said.

Urgent care centers pop up

Urgent care facilities have become popular in recent years as health care costs escalated and a shortage of doctors and nurses took hold in the medical field.

There were more than 9,379 urgent care facilities in the United States as of August 2019, 45 of them in Maine, according to the Urgent Care Association, an industry group based in Warrenville, Illinois. Their numbers have been growing by about 400 to 500 centers a year.

Among the 45 Maine centers are Maine Medical Center Urgent Care Plus in Portland, ConvenientMD Urgent Care in Bangor, St. Mary’s Urgent Care in Auburn and Northern Light Walk-in Care in Bangor.

“Urgent care centers are the front door to health care,” said Laurel Stoimenoff, CEO of the Urgent Care Association. “They are great connectors to other doctors within a hospital system.” She said 35 percent of patients don’t have a primary care doctor.

Many urgent care centers, including the new Lewiston one, are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day of the year. One service at the Lewiston center will be an online portal where patients can see how many people are in front of them for care.

The centers could alleviate the long waits in emergency rooms or at primary care physicians for patients who don’t have life-threatening problems but who feel they need to be seen immediately.

“For years, hospitals and others have been trying to stress appropriate ‘ER is for emergencies’ use,” said Jeffrey Austin, vice president of government affairs and communications for the Maine Hospital Association in Augusta. “But, people still need urgent care for minor injuries like an injured finger.”

Too much health care

Austin said overbuilding is always a concern in health care.

“It will be interesting to see where this leads,” he said of the proliferation of urgent care centers. “Even communities without urgent care centers as such may still have similar services available, just located in a primary care practice. That includes same day appointments and a higher level of diagnostics like an x-ray.”

The new Maine Urgent Care Center in Lewiston is about 2 miles from Concentra Urgent Care in Lewiston and 3 miles from St. Mary’s Urgent Care Center in Auburn.

The center will have a 4,576-square-foot patient and clinical area on the first floor, 1,420 square feet of administrative space on the second floor and parking.

Central Maine Healthcare will lease the building from real estate developer Bateman Properties of Portland.

The low-cost building design and staffing primarily with medical personnel who are not physicians saves money for both the hospital and patients.

The center is modeled after the Topsham center, which had more than 8,000 patients in its first year. Brickman expects the same number or higher in Lewiston.

The centers won’t create a major windfall of money for the hospital, he said. The Topsham center broke even after only four to five months.

“Primary care and urgent care are not large money makers,” said Brickman. “This is meant to improve access and convenience and lessen the cost burden.”