Counties, cities eye on-site clinics for employees

Thousands of Atlanta area government employees and their families may soon be able to receive basic health care treatment at on-site clinics designed to rein in rising health care costs and increase worker productivity.

Cobb, Gwinnett, DeKalb and Atlanta are looking into creating clinics that could provide free services ranging from basic check-ups to prescription refills to drug testing for employees covered under the county or city’s insurance plan. The city of Marietta opened a clinic in 2011 and reported saving about $59,000 on prescriptions and drug testing in the first year.

On-site clinics are fairly common in the private sector, and are popping up more in the public sector as self-insured governments look for ways to improve employee health and lower annual costs. Employees can still visit a general physician off-site, but the clinics are designed to be a more convenient and affordable option. By hiring an outside medical provider to run the clinics, governments are able to save money by paying the provider directly, said Tim Hoback, senior director at CareHere, which operates the Marietta clinic.

“We have a lot of governments showing much more interest,” Hoback said.”It’s a great way to provide medical services to employees at discounted rate.”

The amount of money governments can save depends on the terms of the provider’s contract, and how many employees visit the clinic. Hoback said agencies who open clinics typically see a 15 to 18 percent reduction in annual insurance costs.

In Marietta, the city was quoted about $20,000 for supplies and equipment to set up the clinic, which is located inside a leased office building near the historic downtown square. Each month, CareHere bills the city $23 per employee and $12 per retiree. Spouses and dependents, including children 5 and older are eligible to visit. There’s no co-pay for employees and select generic prescription drugs are also free, so the more employees and retirees who visit, the more money the city saves.

So far, participation rates at the Marietta clinic are high. Employees aren’t required to take sick time for the 20-minute appointment. Shannon Barrett, Marietta’s acting human resources director said on average 92 percent of the clinic’s appointments are booked. But in order for the clinic to be a success, the city had to quell privacy concerns that employee medical records would be available to human resources. Barrett said they are not.

“One of concerns was would our employees buy into this? Would they make use of it? Because if they didn’t’ we wouldn’t see any kind of benefit,” she said. “To me, its a win-win. We’re trying to lower costs and trying to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars.”

Joan Ellars, executive director of Keep Marietta Beautiful, said she’s visited the clinic about 10 times since it opened and comes every couple of months for her prescription refills.

“It’s an incredibly good bargain for us and the city,” she said. “There’s no wait. They have a small enough patient base, so they know you, which is nice.”

Each agency can structure their clinic differently, and Atlanta-area governments are at different stages of figuring out what a clinic would look like, who would be served and what would be covered. Atlanta is looking at the possibility of opening a traditional on-site clinic and “mini” pharmacy to serve employees. DeKalb is looking at the cost of a clinic and discussing whether it’s a viable option. Gwinnett officials say they are planning on proposing an on-site clinic in the next couple of years barring any developments with the health care law.

Cobb County is accepting proposals from providers to operate possibly three clinics for its 10,300 eligible employees, retirees and dependants. The county wants to open the first location July 1 and have the second location within a year after. The county spent $67.6 million on health care costs last year. Chairman Tim Lee said the clinics would allow the county to better promote wellness and identify treatable diseases early on.

“Health care cost is a huge nugget for the county. And of that health care cost, a big portion of that is made up of treating preventable disease or manageable diseases, same as with any other organization,” he said. “Having a clinic and a wellness program, you’re able to get ahead of some costly problems.”