By Ron Leir
With or without Obamacare – the outcome in New Jersey depends on whether Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature treat the President’s prescription for reform – the Town of Harrison is looking to improve health care opportunities for its residents.
Down to only two full-time employees (a nurse and a sanitary inspector) under the wing of its Board of Health, the town is lookingto retain the services of North Bergen Health Officer Richard Censullo as its health care overseer after the retirement of Karen Comer on Dec. 1, 2011.
Now, with a strong push from Mayor Ray McDonough, Harrison is planning the second phase of a revamped local health agency.
Initially, the town had weighed the notion of issuing a Request for Proposals from outside health care providers equipped to provide a wideranging menu of primary health care options for free or at low cost to local residents, said Town Attorney Paul Zarbetski.
At the time, Zarbetski said the town was aware that at least two entities had expressed interest in offering such services to Harrison: the privately-owned Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center and the North Hudson Community Action Corp. (NHCAC), a health and social service agency that targets assistance to low-income residents in Hudson, Bergen and Passaic counties.
Zarbetski said that NHCAC is designated as a “Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC),” a community-based organization that provides primary and preventive health care, including dental, mental health, substance abuse care and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, regardless of patients’ ability to pay, to medically underserved, underinsured and uninsured populations.
As such, the agency is eligible for reimbursement from the federal health insurance programs. Patients are charged on a sliding scale keyed to family income and size.
For these reasons, Zarbetski said, Harrison deemed NHCAC the town’s best choice to engage as a health care partner.
To that end, Zarbetski and Rocco Russomanno, the town’s construction official, met last week with an architect representing NHCAC at the Harrison Health Dept. offices, next to Town Hall, on Harrison Ave. to survey the physical layout.
“We’ll probably do a little bit of reconfiguring the space, maybe removing a wall, allowing them to install some equipment,” Zarbetski said. “The architect is coming up with a concept.”
“We’d like it done as soon as possible,” Zarbetski said, “but we’re just in the beginning stage. We haven’t had any discussion with them about when they’d actually move in or how they’d compensate us for the use of town space or the terms of a contractual agreement for the operation.”
The key feature for Harrison, of course, is the benefit to its residents, many of whom are hardworking, blue collar folks. Instead of having to schedule an appointment with a doctor at a clinic, the expectation would be that someone could simply show up, Monday to Friday, and get the service required, Zarbetski said.
Censullo said he’s all for the town engaging NHCAC’s services. “It’s working here (in North Bergen), in Union City, in West New York – it’s a no brainer to have them in Harrison.”
The beauty of it, Censullo said, is that residents “will receive full and primary health care, including immunizations for children, wellness care for babies, blood pressure screening, different types of monitoring.”
“But go beyond that,” Censullo continued. “If, for example, you come into the health center with hypertension, with our model, we don’t refer to you to an outside physician – we treat you, we give you a prescription right then and there.”
When the agency came into North Bergen, Censullo said, “they supplied two doctors here five days a week, all day, a nurse practitioner, a phlebotomist who takes blood one day a week, all at no (or little) cost to residents. … (NHCAC) get their money because unlike regular doctors, they can ask for enhanced reimbursement (as a) Federally Qualified Health Center. No co-pay or if you do have insurance, it will be on a sliding fee scale but a very reduced scale. We’re providing access to health care to people who if they were having chest pains, they wouldn’t see a doctor until it was too late. If we can work on prevention, early detection, we’re ahead of the game. Pregnant women – how many women go nine months without being checked. We have a women’s health section to test for HIV and if the woman does have HIV, we get her early intervention, get her AZT to, hopefully, prevent the child from being born with AIDS.”
For Censullo, the bottom line with going the NHCAC route, is that, “Harrison residents will have access to primary care without needing to call an ambulance if they have chest pains, for example.”
If the town’s governing body approves the move, Censullo said that Harrison might be eligible for federal Community Development Block Grant funding “to help make any minor renovations needed” to accommodate the transition to access full primary care.
Censullo said the existing Harrison health offices are already outfitted with impairedaccessible bathrooms, examining, waiting and conference rooms. “The place was built to be a free-standing health center,” he added.
If things go as expected, the reconfigured health setup could be operating by early October, officials said.
Asked what would happen to the current town health personnel, Zarbetski said: “We’ll find an alternate space for them, probably at our senior center. This is not a layoff plan. It’s just enhancing what we have.”
“We’re very excited about (the project),” Zarbetski said. “It will be a nice addition to the town and they’d maintain the space for us.”