At your service, even under stress


Since it opened its doors to the public on Feb. 1, the Dr. Stanley J. Siwek Health Center has welcomed patients, mostly from Harrison, for treatment by a full complement of trained and well-equipped staff.

But one item vital to the future of the entire operation is still missing.

“We still don’t have a Medicare (registration) number,” acknowledged Joan Quigley, president/CEO of the North Hudson Community Action Corp., which operates the facility, “and without that, we can’t get a Medicaid number, which means we can’t put in for uncompensated care [reimbursement].”

Quigley said that NHCAC had hoped that the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) would have come through with the essential paperwork sometime during the first quarter of the year.

That hasn’t happened, however. “They move very slowly,” she said.

“But we’re still glad we opened,” Quigley said, recalling that her agency had been pushing to get into Harrison much sooner and was loath to disappoint town officials and residents eagerly anticipating the clinic’s arrival.

And, Quigley hastened to add, “we’re not turning anyone away.”

Incidentally, Quigley noted, it’s not that HHS is calling into question any aspect of the Harrison clinical setup. Rather, she said, it seems to be a matter of submitting certain required HHS forms in the desired format – apparently not an easy task when dealing with federal bureaucrats who may be overwhelmed with multiple clients.

Quigley said that NHCAC, which operates five other Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) spread among Hudson, Bergen and Passaic counties, is “absorbing the loss” of federal revenues “by holding down expenses at our other centers.”

And, for now anyway, “we’ll keep going” in Harrison, she maintained. “We have a commitment to the people here in this area.”

The mission, as envisioned several years ago by the late Harrison Mayor Ray McDonough, was to provide primary health care as an FQHC within the town limits to folks who couldn’t easily afford a private physician and who, otherwise, would likely end up in an overcrowded hospital E.R. At an FQHC, patient fees are assessed on a sliding scale based on a patient’s income.

So the Town of Harrison and NHCCA – with the aid of $319,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funding – carved out space in the Town Hall annex to accommodate the new facility.

While Quigley and her Harrison team – whose medical gatekeepers are family practice physician Dr. Sonya Bhate and nurse coordinator Susan Ortiz – are maintaining a calm front, a look at the center’s patient billing categories is certain to cause concern.

As of last week, of the center’s roughly 1,300 clients – 945 adults and 315 children (there were also 45 GYN patients given Pap tests) – who’ve made more than 2,700 visits to the facility since Feb. 1, about 55% are insured by Medicaid, about 35% are uninsured, about 10% are on Medicare and about 10% have private insurance.

By the estimate of NHCAC CFO Michael Shababb, it will cost about $425,000 a year to keep the Harrison center and its seven full-time staffers, including backup support.

How long the agency expects to continue functioning without a resolution of its federal insurance quandary remains to be seen.

In the meantime, among the clients they’ve seen to date, Harrison staffers said they’ve treated cases of hypertension, obesity and poor nutritional habits and many haven’t even seen a doctor for a long time.

Another common medical issue observed, they said, is H.pyhlori, chronic stomach bacteria which is treatable with antibiotics. In hope of facilitating improved eating habits, the staff refers clients to nutritional counselors at the NHCAC’s Union City and West New York health centers.

Among their diabetic patients, staff said they’ve had success in controlling excess levels of Hemoglobin A1C.

For those patients requiring medications, the center can offer them an opportunity to fill their prescriptions at a lower price because of its participation, as an FQHC, in the 340B federal pharmacology program.

“We contract with Pharmacy Plus where our patients are eligible for a very low co-pay – and they can even get a brand name drug cheaper than a generic,” Quigley said.

Another advantage made available to the center’s clients is that through a digital “patient portal,” they can go online to check lab results, request an appointment and/or prescription re-fill or ask to speak to a doctor on a 24/7 basis, according to Quigley.

Additionally, she said, staffers known as “navigators” at Harrison and the other NHCAC health centers are trained to check with patients scheduled for important medical procedures such as cancer screenings and high-risk lab tests to make sure that those patients actually show up for those exams.

Quigley noted that the Harrison center – like the other NHCAC health centers – track vaccinations received by its pediatric clients.

Also, through a digital link-up to certain hospitals – Hackensack UMC/Palisades, Englewood Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital of Paterson, St. Mary’s Hospital of Passaic and Jersey City Medical Center/Barnabas Health – centers are alerted to treatment received by  clients,” Quigley said. “We’re working to get UMDNJ and St. Michael’s Hospital/Prime Healthcare, both of Newark, into the network.”

Learn more about the writer ...