Clinic hopes to become community health service

Rocky Wilson/Chieftain Among a group who approached the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners seeking a letter of support for a proposal to transform Winding Waters Clinic into a community health center were, from left, Winding Waters Clinic's Keli Christman, Jessie Michaelson, and Dr. Elizabeth Powers; David Harmon, chairman of nonprofit Winding Waters Medical Center; and Stephen Kliewer, of the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness.

Clinicians and staff from Winding Waters Clinic are seeking support in their effort to secure a federal community health service designation for their Enterprise-based operation.

Winding Waters Family Physician and Surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Powers says the benefits of such a designation, if realized through a very competitive application process, would be many. She says improved physical, mental, pharmaceutical, transportation, and even in-school benefits would be realized through a community health service designation.

Although an Oct. 1 deadline to submit an application is fast approaching, the clinic has apparently been mulling that step for some time.

Winding Waters front office manager Jessie Michaelson says in July 2013 Winding Waters Clinic formed a nonprofit arm named Winding Waters Medical Clinic. Michaelson says federal money to help finance the upgrades Dr. Powers talks about – which could add six full-time family-wage medical jobs here – only can be channeled through nonprofit entities.

The long-term goal, says Michaelson, is for the nonprofit Winding Waters Medical Clinic to operate what’s now Winding Waters Clinic, and for the existing Winding Waters Clinic to “go away.”

Stephen Kliewer, executive director for the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness, says the recent influx of Medicaid patients seeking assistance through his agency accentuates the need to reach out to persons in the manner prescribed for a federally designated community health clinic. Chantay Jett, operations officer for the Wellness Center, says those at their mental health facility support the Winding Waters effort – among other reasons “because right now we are particularly short of staff.”

Dr. Powers says, “The number of Medicaid patients (in Wallowa County) has jumped from about 800 to nearly 1,500 in the last few months.” The primary reason for that, she noted, is the Affordable Health Care Act, the federal law that requires everyone to be insured.

David Harmon, chairman of the recently formed nonprofit arm of Winding Waters Clinic, Winding Waters Medical Clinic, says, “Currently, we have great medical and mental services in this community, but (this proposed designation) would be vital to the community by improving dental, pharmaceutical, and transportation services to those in need.” Harmon says the program to develop community health services has been around for 40 years. “This is a great opportunity to bring federal money into our community. If we turn our backs we will be giving away more than a half-million dollars.”

Harmon refers to the $650,000 that Winding Waters would receive annually for two years to implement health care upgrades in Wallowa County if granted the sought federal designation. Dr. Powers says monies to continue operations of the nonprofit Winding Waters Medical Clinic after those initial two years could be secured on a non-competitive basis.

Dr. Powers says the closest community health center to Wallowa County now is in Redmond, and during the last round of community health service applications in Oregon, 15 medical entities applied and three were approved.

On Monday, Sept. 15, representatives from Winding Waters Clinic and the Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness approached the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners seeking a letter of support to add strength to their application.

In response to a question from the audience by Wallowa County commissioner candidate Dan DeBoie, Dr. Powers stated that 38.4 percent of the Wallowa County’s population subsists below the federally designated poverty level. The relevance of that, as pointed out by Dr. Powers, is that payments for health services under the arm of the sought designation would be paid on a sliding-scale basis, meaning all could be served based on ability to pay.

It was of the opinion of Dr. Powers that a community health designation for Winding Waters would not impact other health providers in Wallowa County because the clientele being sought are persons now without health coverage.

Board Chairman Mike Hayward said, “On most issue that come before this board I’m well informed. However, this (medical issue) is way over my head. Yet I do believe we have people in the community who need this type of help. If it will help the people, we need to support it.”

The Board of Commissioners then voted unanimously to draft a letter of support for the Winding Waters application.

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