Tired of battling rising health care costs, Unite Here — the union that represents Atlantic City’s casino service workers — decided to take matters into its own hands:
It opened its own health care center.
The Unite Here Health — Health Center, essentially a primary care medical practice, opened earlier this month in Atlantic City to serve the roughly 20,000 union members and their families covered by Unite Here.
“The only way to take control of our health care costs and the quality of care was by opening up our own health care center,” Local 54 President Bob McDevitt said.
Earlier this month, the union held a grand opening and dedicated the new center to Betsy Gilbertson, a union official who has spent several years exploring a new strategy for the health care for the union.
“There is no way this would have happened without her vision and her strategic approach,” McDevitt said. “We have been moving mountains to make this happen and there is no way we could have done it without Betsy.”
Unite Here began partnering more than a year ago with the Continuum Health Alliance, leading experts in medical practice management that advise medical practices throughout the state on ways to improve their financial and clinical operations.
Christopher Olivia, Continuum’s president, said the fit made sense.
“Their goal is to provide better access to care for their members,” he said. “Essentially their goal is the same as ours.”
Olivia hopes there will be a lower overall cost of care because there is better access and coordination in the ambulatory setting.
“We have a pretty good track record in that regard of lowering the overall cost of care,” he said.
McDevitt said the Unite Here local has about 12,000 members, and about 10,000 live close enough to the health center to use it as their primary care practice.
McDevitt said the union has been working for years to rein in medical costs, and he said the employer pays on average $8,500 per worker for coverage, which is lower than many other plans.
“It is not like we just started to be hands-on — we have been doing it for the past decade, as a survival instinct,” McDevitt said. “The health center is a culmination of all that we have learned about providing quality health care that works for our members.
“(The center) is as comprehensive as we can make it: three primary care doctors and a pharmacy that provides a lot of generics.”
The center, he said, also includes a chiropractor, a physical therapist and a podiatrist. It may expand to cardiology and pediatrics.
McDevitt said the key is to provide comprehensive, convenient care — the center opens at 7 a.m., six days a week, with half the slots reserved for walk-ins. That aims to keep people well, rather than cure them once they get sick, he said.
“We think it will have a real impact on slowing down the cost (increases) and we believe that we can reverse the trend to some extent over the next four to five years,” he said.
More than that, McDevitt said, it enables them to take control of their health care costs.
“We’re not left to the tender mercies of the health care industry, none of whom have done anything else except charge more and more money every year,” he said.
He said the goal is to move toward health care as opposed to sick care. He said many workers have trouble getting to the doctors “and they don’t utilize health care until they are so sick they can’t get out of bed. That is the exact reverse of what good health care does. Good health care is something that maintains your health.”
Linda Schwimmer, vice president of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, said the health center has the perfect approach.
“It focuses on primary care and that’s where the focus needs to be,” she said. “You can have the greatest impact because you’re making the care accessible. They are really bringing the care that their employees need and want and bringing it to a place they can get to and at hours when they can get to it.”
Schwimmer said the health center should be an example for others.
“It is a perfect model of where an employee and employer can have a very successful workplace wellness intuitive, but in this more global sense in terms of focusing on the care you are paying for and making sure you get quality care to your members,” she said.
Schwimmer said the center is designed to give patients longer appointments to deal with chronic or multiple conditions. And it aligns the interests of the employers, who finance much of the costs, with the employees, who are getting the care.
“This will make them healthier and happier people, but healthier employees as well,” she said.
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