BRATTLEBORO -- A New Hampshire-based medical company wants to open a new for-profit urgent care center in the former Pizza Hut at the roundabout at Exit 3.
ClearChoiceMD, which opened its first Vermont urgent care center this week in Barre, has plans to open similar facilities across Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine in the next few years and expects to have the Brattleboro office open some time this summer.
ClearChoiceMD founder, Dr. Marcus Hampers, who has worked for 20 years in the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center emergency room, said the new urgent care centers will take some of the stress off of overcrowded hospital emergency rooms while giving patients more cost effective alternative to treating non-life threatening episodic illnesses and injuries.
"In the past 20 years I have watched emergency departments become overburdened by patients, who through no fault of their own, wind up in emergency rooms with non-life-threatening injuries," Hampers said. "When that happens the very sick patients have their care delayed. Urgent care centers are opening all over the country and we think this will be a valuable service to provide to the people in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine."
ClearChoiceMD is a private company based in New London, N.H., and it is not affiliated with any hospital.
Along with taking the pressure off of busy hospital emergency rooms, Hampers said his medical offices will help alleviate a chronic physician shortage, which plagues rural America.
"We have a shortage of primary care providers," Hampers said. "There are only so many hours in a day and many of the primary care providers are overworked."
A 2010 Vermont Department of Health physician survey found that in half the counties, 25 percent or more of the primary care physicians were over the age of 60. In Windham County that year, 29 percent of the primary care physicians were 60 years old or older. And in 2012 the University of Vermont Area Health Education Centers Program found that the number of internal medicine physicians were declining while two-thirds of the internal medicine and almost half of the family medicine physicians limited or closed their practices to new patients in 2012.
Under Vermont rules, urgent care offices do not require a Certificate of Need from the Green Mountain Care Board to open.
Vermont Medical Society Spokesman Justin Campfield said the association had no position on the state's new urgent care centers. He said there was some talk in the Legislature this year about the new centers, but for now, the VMS was going to wait and see how the centers do as they open the new facilities.
Hampers also argues that his business model will save patients money.
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Harry Chen said urgent care clinics probably do have a role to play in a changing and overtaxed health care system, but at the same time he said health officials had concerns. Chen said the for-profit health care centers can probably treat patients quicker and for less money, and fewer non-emergency visits to the emergency room mean those who truly need care will receive it faster. But at the same time he said there was concern that there would be less consistency in care as patients see doctors who are less familiar with their chronic conditions.
Patients might overuse the service because it is quick and relatively cheap, and that might not be the best use of health care dollars, Chen said. And he said he was worried about equity. Hospitals will always treat a patient, whether he or she has insurance, but he was not sure how similar cases would play out in the for profit urgent care centers.
"Like most health care issues, there is never a black-and-white answer," Chen said. "If we are going to create a health care system in Vermont and allocate resources to provide care and access, and not overspend, for everyone, then I think we have to have all of the facilities come into play. The trick will be in finding the sweet spot where we have enough good quality services, but we are not wasting health care dollars."
As insurance rates climb, patients are more concerned with their co-pays and deductibles and Hampers said the ClearChoiceMD office in Brattleboro will offer X-rays, lab tests and other services at a fraction of what area hospitals charge.
"Twenty years ago everyone had insurance and nobody cared what it cost," Hampers said. "Now people are paying attention to every dollar they spend on health care. Hospitals are large and bureaucratic and there is a lot of overhead. If you can get the same services for much less money, why would you not do that?"
Brattleboro Memorial Hospital would not comment on the new Brattleboro medical office, which will be open 12 hours a day, 363 days a year.
Along with the Barre office, ClearChoiceMD has plans to open a facility in St. Albans later this month and then one in Rutland. Hampers said licensing is more complicated in New Hampshire and the company is going through that process now with plans to open up additional offices in New Hampshire.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.