Group seeks funding for clinic treating Medicare patients

Lisa Demer

JUNEAU -- A private group is seeking up to $1 million from the state Legislature for a new Anchorage medical clinic aimed at seniors on Medicare who long have struggled to find a family doctor.

That the proposal is developing political traction was underscored Friday when key Republican lawmakers called a press conference to tell reporters that it's a great idea.

"What we're really offering here is a private sector solution for a government problem," said state Rep. Mike Hawker, an Anchorage Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee.

Sitting alongside him were the committee's co-chair, Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze, and state Sen. Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican who serves on the Senate's health and social services budget panel. Meyer called the press conference, the first time he's done so in a decade in the Legislature.

Meyer said he's been working on the problem for years and that retired Anchorage cardiologist George Rhyneer offered a welcome solution. The outpatient clinic Rhyneer and others propose will only serve patients on Medicare, the federal insurance program for people 65 and older.

Representatives from the senior organization AARP, the Alaska State Medical Association, and Providence Health & Services Alaska all told reporters they support the project, too.

"There are doctors, primary care doctors, who no longer wish to take Medicare patients," said Marie Darlin, AARP capital coordinator.

Last year there were about 26,000 residents 65 and older in Anchorage and the Mat-Su, and the number is expected to top 36,000 by 2014, according to figures in the business plan for the proposed facility, Alaska Medicare Clinic Inc.

Last year, the Institute of Social and Economic Research at the University of Alaska Anchorage surveyed 101 primary care doctors in Anchorage and the Mat-Su and found only 28 accepted new Medicare patients. Low reimbursements for primary care are often cited as the problem; specialists are allowed to charge higher rates.

Earlier this week, three House Democrats introduced a bill to create a grant fund spurring the creation of Medicare clinics. The special fund probably won't be necessary, with Rhyneer seeking an appropriation directly, said state Rep. Les Gara, an Anchorage Democrat and one of the sponsors.

So how will a clinic that only takes Medicare patients make a go of it, if low Medicare payments cause other doctors to opt out?

"The crux of the clinic actually is to streamline the way medicine is delivered, in a way that's rather novel to Alaska and novel throughout the country," Rhyneer said.

The non-profit clinic will employ one full-time doctor seeing as many as 50 patients a day, with much of the care provided by nurses and other medical staff, Rhyneer said. Other doctors likely will fill in or work part time, Rhyneer said.

The doctor won't spend as much time with patients as doctors usually do, which some patients may not like. But the trade-off is that patients who currently lack a family physician managing chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure will have one, Rhyneer said.

"The doctor will be the same doctor they saw the last time, the same doctor they are going to see the next time," Rhyneer said.

The clinic expects to hire an experienced internist or family practice physician who will be able to handle the high volume. Operating costs will be lower than in most private practices, Rhyneer said. Medical records will be electronic. With the focus on one government single payer, Medicare, office staff will be able to bill efficiently.

The project needs $1.7 million in start up money, which will allow it to run for three years while it builds a patient base, said Rhyneer. After that it should be able to support itself through Medicare reimbursements, he said. Backers are seeking money from a variety of sources, including the federal government. Meyer said that U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski also backs the project.

If the funding comes through, the clinic would open by the end of summer in leased space. A location hasn't yet been picked.

On the board of directors for the Alaska Medicare Clinic Inc.: Mike Haugen of the doctor association Alaska Physicians & Surgeons; Laurie Herman, regional director of government affairs for Providence; and Rod Betit of the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association.

Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.

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By LISA DEMER
ldemer@adn.com
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