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Sen. Bernie Sanders hosts a Town Hall Meeting on the Brattleboro Common on Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. Sanders is asking for $4.2 million in congressionally designated spending for North Star Health to build a new facility in Brattleboro to provide primary medical and behavioral health care.

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BRATTLEBORO — A health care provider that has clinics in Rockingham, Londonderry and Ludlow hopes to expand into Brattleboro.

“There’s not a federally qualified health center in the region of Brattleboro,” said Josh Dufresne, CEO of North Star Health, formerly known as Springfield Medical Care Systems.

A federally qualified health center is a health care practice that offers primary care and preventative services and qualifies for reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid.

An FQHC serves an underserved area or population, offers a sliding fee scale and also provides dental health, mental health and substance abuse services.

“Our mission is to take all comers regardless of ability to pay,” said Dufresne.

On Aug. 1, the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders issued a press release stating he is asking for $4.2 million in congressionally designated spending, formerly known as earmarks, for North Star to integrate with the Windham County Dental Center and to build a new facility in Brattleboro to provide primary medical and behavioral health care.

Dufresne said North Star is in preliminary talks with Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and Windham County Dental Center as to what the new venture, which could serve between 1,500 and 3,500 people a year, might look like.

A spokeswoman from the dental center said it’s still too soon to describe what a partnership might look like.

Christopher Dougherty, BMH’s new president and chief executive officer, said he’s met with Dufresne and toured North Star’s facility in Springfield.

“I personally believe that this will be something that we can do with Northstar,” he said. “I think there’s lots of good opportunities. But we’ve really just started that conversation. Our goal is always to work with any partners that can help bring the best health care to this community and to find ways that we can do that in the most cost effective way for the entire community.”

North Star already offers dental services in Chester, said Dufresne.

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“We prioritize pregnant women and HIV positive patients and we have spots for dental emergencies and scheduled visits,” he said.

In the case of the Windham County Dental Center, said Dufresne, it isn’t an FQHC, so it is reliant on minimal fees, grant funding and donations.

“If you’re going to take care of patients that can’t pay, and if you’re really good at getting private donations, you can make that work,” he said. “Otherwise, you need to find some sort of subsidiary funding. And I think that’s where we could come in.”

In addition to receiving reimbursement from Medicare an Medicaid, FQHCs such as North Star get what is called a 330 grant from the federal Health Resources & Services Administration.

“The HRSA grants are meant to offset some of the losses that you take on by by treating folks who are homeless and have no ability to pay,” said Dufresne. “This would expand our service area, and it would allow us to help Windham County Dental with sustainability. What they do and how they do it aligns very well with what we do.”

Dufresne also noted that the congressional spending is not a guarantee.

“So this deal could get knocked way down, or it could get knocked out. Which would mean that we’re back to the drawing board.”

Dufresne said Windham County is well positioned to benefit from an FQHC because of its community health initiatives such as Healthworks and the Consortium on Substance Abuse.

“The only way to really move this ahead is to work in a partnership or collaboration with both the Brattleboro Retreat, Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, and [Groundworks],” said Dufresne. “But I’m making it very clear that I’m not coming in there as an organization to compete. That doesn’t make any sense. And it’s going to take everybody to work together to be able to take care of the community.”

If the funding is approved, North Star would look at either renovating a space or building something new, but that probably won’t happen until at least 2024.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.