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Short of Goal, Mascoma Clinic Organizers Extend Sign-Up Date

Canaan — More than 1,000 residents in the Mascoma Valley have pledged their support behind a proposed health center in the area, though the project organizers want more to sign on before they seek funding to build it.

Organizers had hoped to collect 1,600 signatures from potential patients by Wednesday. With that goal apparently out of reach, the clinic’s backers have pushed the goal date back to Jan. 31.

Efforts to build interest in the community have waned since the holiday break, said Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson, who added that he has had less time to dedicate to it as he focuses on next month’s deliberative session for Town Meeting.

He remains confident that the clinic will be opened. But first, he must build a critical mass of patients willing to give the clinic a try before investing more time and money. He was hopeful that community support would pick up soon.

“Obviously, we’d like to get it done sooner rather than later,” Samson said.

Samson has been working with other community members for the past year to develop a plan for the health center, currently to be called Mascoma Community Healthcare. He is proposing a 5,000-square-foot facility along Route 4 near the Canaan-Enfield town line to be built within a year. The clinic would offer comprehensive primary care services and accept most insurance.

Though its mission would be to serve Mascoma’s five towns — Canaan, Dorchester, Enfield, Grafton and Orange — anyone would be welcome as a patient. Modeled after similar community health centers in Plainfield, Vt., Littleton, N.H., and Plymouth, N.H., the Mascoma clinic would be a non-profit organization, governed by a board with at least half its members being patients of the center.

Organizers have asked anyone who is interested to sign non-binding commitments to give the health center a try when it opens. Pledge forms have been collected at community meetings, distributed through local businesses and also online at the project’s website, http://mascomacommunityhealthcare.org.

So far, Orange residents have signed up in the largest numbers, accounting for a quarter of the pledges, Samson said. Meanwhile, Enfield residents have been the slowest to jump on board, making up just 5 percent of the commitments despite being the largest Mascoma town.

Kevin Lary, owner of Movie Market video store in Enfield, was among those who signed up. Lary said he is happy with his current doctor and has no plans to leave if the Mascoma health center opens. But having someplace nearby to get basic care could be good for the area, he said.

“I just thought it sounded like a good idea and (figured) if they needed people to say yes, we’ll support it,” Lary said. “I’m a little disappointed in what I’ve read the turnout is.”

Canaan used to have a pediatrics clinic run by Dartmouth-Hitchcock, but it closed in 2011 after staff retired, patient numbers fell and Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s budget got tight. The closing of that clinic “was unfortunate,” Lary said, because it provided convenient access to people for whom a trip to Lebanon was 30 minutes or more.

John Dow, of Canaan, believes the center will lower costs for patients and also improve access for people who live far from Lebanon.

“Traffic-wise, it’s just a pain in the neck to travel,” Dow said Monday from Florida, where he is spending his “semi-retirement” days from Canaan Hardware, the business his family has run for generations. “Route 4 seems to be getting worse and worse.”

Dow, a veteran, can get most of his health care needs met at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction. But he has seen the proposal for Mascoma Community Healthcare, discussed it with other local residents and believes it will offer patients more affordable care than they receive currently.

Getting people to pledge to try the clinic has “been like pulling teeth,” Dow said. Much of their reluctance comes from confusion about what it would mean for residents’ ability to keep their same insurance and doctor, he said.

“Once they get comfortable with it, it’ll grow,” Dow said.

Dow’s son, Matt, also has been eager to see the clinic established. Matt Dow owns a property management company in Canaan and said the clinic could offer a convenient and affordable health care option to himself and his 14 employees.

“I don’t see anything bad coming out of it,” Matt Dow said. “It looks to be all good, from the way I see it.”

Samson had hoped to have the health center built by the end of 2014, which he acknowledged was an ambitious goal. Even if organizers build a critical mass of support, there is still a great deal of work left to be done. Organizers need to find funding, form affiliation agreements with local hospitals, buy land, hire an architect, buy equipment and recruit staff. When it comes to funding, Samson said they would be looking toward federal block grants.

Despite the work ahead, Samson was hopeful.

“I’m really excited,” he said. “It will be good to have affordable health care close to home.”

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