In Sacramento and Placer counties, roughly 10,000 adult Medi-Cal enrollees with Anthem Blue Cross are learning this summer that Sutter’s primary-care doctors will no longer see them.
Instead, those patients are being shifted to primary-care doctors at community health centers such as Sacramento’s WellSpace Health or Auburn’s Chapa-De Indian Health, said Dr. Ken Ashley, the medical director for primary care at Sutter Medical Group. He said the change in providers will allow the patients to access more services.
“Some of the things that the (community health centers) can provide with the funding that they are receiving are things that sometimes we struggle to find for our Medi-Cal patients, things like optometry and dental, behavioral medicine,” Ashley said. “I feel like these patients are finally going to receive things I could not provide as their primary-care doctor. I’m OK with our partners helping to take care of these patients.”
Sutter, Dignity Health, UC Davis and other providers have all contributed funding and expertise to expand the network of community health centers, more formally known as federally qualified health centers.
The so-called FQHC’s have long been the primary-care delivery network for uninsured, low-income people across the country, but Sacramento did not have a strong network of the centers until the Affordable Care Act set aside funding to help them grow to meet the needs of an expanding Medicaid population.
That flood of new patients has swamped many primary-care providers and has made it harder for all patients to get appointments through commercial providers, Ashley said. Meanwhile, in meetings with the leaders of local FQHC’s, he and other leaders were hearing how those organizations had expanded services, lengthened hours and had capacity for more patients.
About a year ago at one of the meetings, Ashley said, all the attendees began to feel that, if they could shift Anthem’s adult Medi-Cal enrollees, they would improve the health of the primary-care delivery system for a broad set of customers.
“We’ve been having a difficult time getting all our patients in at the time they would like, where they would like,” Ashley said. “This is one more step to try to help allow the rest of the community to help us take care of all these patients.”
Jonathan Porteus, the CEO of Wellspace Health, also leads the Central Valley Health Network, a group of health centers up and down the Central Valley that manage almost 3 million visits a year. He said that Anthem began earlier this year investigating whether the FQHC’s truly had the capacity to absorb the adult Medi-Cal patients served through Sutter.
“We were notified – we being the federally qualified health centers – that this change was coming and that there was a keen interest to make sure that it was smooth, that people would not be left without access,” Porteus said. “The wisdom of Sutter and others has been to help our region have a network of federally qualified health centers, a true blanket of care for the first time ever. This is one of the early tests.”
Porteus said he knows that people have questions about whether the quality of care at his centers is on par with what they would receive from primary-care doctors. He said he welcomes those questions because they give him an opportunity to tell the WellSpace story.
“The Joint Commission, which is the accrediting body that accredits hospitals and shuts them down if they don’t think they’re good enough, has accredited us to be a patient-centered medical home, has accredited all our behavioral health,” Porteus said. “This is a standard many of our commercial colleagues in this community don’t have. If you went into some of these primary-care practices and asked them if they had Joint Commission accreditation for ambulatory care, they will tell you ‘no.’”
There will unquestionably be upheaval in this process for both doctors and patients, Ashley said.
Sutter’s pediatricians will continue to provide primary-care to Medi-Cal-enrolled children covered by Anthem Blue , and the insurer’s Medi-Cal enrollees also still will be able to access Sutter specialists. Sutter primary-care doctors will continue to see anyone on Regular Medi-Cal recipients whose medical providers are paid directly by the government.