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Newport Clinic Construction On Horizon

New Health Center to Increase Patients’ Primary Care Access

Newport — Newport area residents may soon have expanded access for their primary care as New London Hospital pushes forward with plans to build a new health center in town.

Although the project is still in the planning stages, New London officials hope to begin construction this spring on a 28,000-square-foot facility that will replace a building roughly half that size in the Newport Shopping Plaza off John Stark Highway.

New London has been running a clinic in town since 1991, shortly after the Newport Hospital closed. A confluence of events — rising lease payments, growing demand and a potential influx of newly insured patients through the Affordable Care Act next year — have made New London officials eager to boost primary care services in town.

“We’re at capacity (at the existing health center). We can’t add any more providers,” said Bruce King, New London’s CEO. “With the ACA and folks being eligible for insurance, we’re anticipating a tick up in terms of patients needing care.”

Newport has been an important part of the hospital’s service area for decades. Newport residents account for one-third of New London’s business, King said, and the health center had more than 14,000 visitors last fiscal year. Newport may account for even more of New London’s patients when uninsured residents gain coverage through the state’s online insurance marketplace.

The center stands to play a significant role in expanding access to primary care in Sullivan County. Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont was not included in the “narrow network” of hospitals covered in the plans offered through New Hampshire’s health insurance marketplace. New London Hospital and its doctors in Newport, however, have been included in the network.

“The need is absolutely there,” said Karen Zurheide, New London’s vice president of community relations.

New London has been thinking of this expansion long before the insurance marketplaces rolled out in October. Costs to rent the center’s space have climbed steadily over the years, King said, and there came a point where it made financial sense for the center to have its own building. New London bought the property along Routes 103/11, as well as the shuttered bowling alley next door and surrounding 17 acres, for $2.2 million last December and set to work designing the project.

The existing health center is in a former meat market at the Newport Shopping Plaza. The heating and cooling systems are often broken, staff said, and the exam rooms are small. The hallways are so narrow that it makes navigating a stretcher difficult. In some areas, two people cannot comfortably walk side-by-side. Mammograms are performed in a room the size of a large closet.

Patient confidentiality is also an issue, said Gail Cartier, the center’s nurse manager and a Newport resident. Cartier shares an office with the office manager and a person who handles patient financial services. The arrangement works OK, Cartier said, but not when she has to discuss confidential patient information over the phone.

“I can’t really openly talk if there’s another patient in here,” Cartier said.

The tight quarters have also made it difficult to see higher volumes of patients. The center is “definitely pushing the limits” when it comes to getting patients seen in a timely manner, said Margie Lim-Morison, New London’s chief nursing officer. Improved access to primary care has been a central goal of federal health reform, as providers adopt a “population health” approach aimed at keeping people healthy and out of the hospital.

“As we move to the population health model, you want to be able to have that access to bring them in and help them stay healthy,” Lim-Morison said.

The two-story building will cost about $7 million and be constructed over 12 to 18 months, New London officials said. It will be oriented in a way that provides better physical access, with wider hallways and arranged so that patients don’t have to walk as far to exam rooms. The building will be designed around the concept of the “medical home,” which has a team approach to providing care.

It will also offer opportunities to Valley Regional doctors, said Peter Wright, Valley Regional’s CEO.

Valley Regional has a small clinic staffed by a physician and physician assistant on Main Street in Newport. Wright said he has talked with King about dedicating space in the new center for Valley Regional’s Newport-based providers.

“Bruce (King) and I are both committed to not competing against each other,” Wright said. “Everything is coordinated. ... Primary care is something the Upper Valley needs more of.”

The existing health center will remain open while the new one is built, King said, and the plan has been well-received in the community.

Bill Donegan owns a framing business in the plaza and gets some of his basic care at the health center. He was not concerned about construction interrupting his business and said an improved health center would be good for Newport.

“I think it’s a great asset for the town,” he said at his store, The Frame Place, earlier this month. “They’ve been successful.”

Newport Town Manager Paul Brown also welcomed New London’s plan as a positive investment in the community.

“We love it,” Brown said. “I think having local doctors that people can get out to and don’t need to travel to are a benefit to everybody.”

Chris Fleisher can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.