When employees of Johnston County government need to see a doctor, they don’t have to travel far or wait long. They can go to a Smithfield clinic that treats only county workers – for free.
County officials hope the clinic, which opened March 1, will save Johnston taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in health-care spending.
“If we save $100,000 or $200,000 … in the scheme of $8 to 10 million, it doesn’t sound like a lot,” said finance director Chad McLamb. “But when we can provide a benefit to employees, even if it’s only $100,000 or $200,000 savings in taxpayer dollars, you can’t beat the dual benefit that provides.”
Johnston leaders opened the clinic to stem rising health-care costs. The county, which is self-insured, has seen its spending soar in recent years – from $8.1 million in fiscal 2010 to $10.3 million in fiscal 2014, an increase of 27 percent in four years.
The clinic, at 711 North St. near the Department of Social Services, provides free care. Its $223,00 budget, funded by the county, pays for a physician’s assistant, an office worker and office space.
McLamb said the county won’t know total annual savings until a full year has passed. But in the last three months of fiscal 2014, county spending on health care fell $132,000 from the same three-month period the year before, he said.
Convenient and cheap
Last week, Nancy House, who works in public utilities, came to the clinic for a wasp sting on her hand, which was already swollen by the time she was sitting on the exam table. “I love it,” she said of the clinic. “It’s convenient. It’s easy to get to. Nice people.”
House said she sought treatment for the wasp sting partly because the care was free. Otherwise, she “probably wouldn’t go (to a doctor) unless it was a major issue,” she said.
The convenience is important too, House said. “You get back to work quicker,” she said. “You don’t spend half a day at the doctor’s office.”
Kevin Sullivan, the physician’s assistant in the clinic, said he can treat most problems – from cuts and scrapes to sprains, broken bones and ailments like the common cold. If something is beyond his skills, he immediately sends the patient to Johnston Health or to the employee’s family doctor.
“It’s been a great a addition to the county,” Sullivan said of the clinic. “And these folks tell me, ‘I was just going to ride it out, see how I feel, but I knew you were here.’ ”
That’s where some savings will come from, McLamb said, getting people to go to a doctor before they suffer a debilitating – and costly – heart attack, stroke or other serious illness.
Sullivan said he’s already seen some cases like that. In one instance, someone came in feeling “off.” Sullivan immediately realized the patient was having a stroke and got the employee to the hospital.
That can save a person’s life and also save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, McLamb said.
The clinic has been open for five months, and McLamb said the feedback so far has been positive.
Johnston officials plan to soon open the clinic to more people on the county health insurance. It opened March 1 to the county’s 1,100 employees. On July 1, it also opened to retirees on the county health plan.
Next, McLamb will look at opening the clinic to spouses of employees and then dependents older than 12. McLamb said the county is staggering the roll-out of eligible people so as not to overwhelm Sullivan.
Finally, the county might also open the clinic up on Fridays. Currently, it’s open Monday through Thursday. Adding one more day would allow Sullivan to see another 15 to 20 people weekly.