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Medical Clinic Proposed for Mascoma Area

Canaan — Officials in the Mascoma River Valley are asking residents to promise they would seek medical care at a proposed health clinic in order to help attract funding and professional staff for the center.

Dubbed “Mascoma Community Healthcare,” the clinic would offer a full range of services from family medicine to pharmaceutical, urgent and dental care, according to a preliminary plan designed by residents and town officials.

The goal is to collect 1,600 signatures from potential patients by Jan. 15, said Canaan Town Manager Mike Samson, who is leading the effort. The promises would be non-binding but meant to show there is a serious interest from community residents in a new health care facility.

“We want to know if there is enough interest to do it,” Samson told an audience of more than 100 people at the Enfield Community Building earlier this month. “I think, if it comes, it would be very popular. But the question is if there will be enough people to make it justifiable?”

The project needs a critical mass of potential patients so that it can obtain financing and attract doctors and nurses from other Upper Valley health care providers to work there, Samson said. So far, 75 residents have pledged to seek care at the clinic for one year, according to Sharon Duffy, Samson’s assistant. Duffy has been posting information about the health center on the website, www.mascomacommunityhealthcare.org, where residents can also find pledge forms.

Organizers want to build a 5,000-square-foot clinic along Route 4 near the Canaan-Enfield town line and be open by year-end 2014. The clinic would accept most insurance. Though its mission would be to serve Mascoma’s five towns — Canaan, Dorchester, Enfield, Grafton and Orange — anybody would be welcome as a patient.

If realized, the center could meet a significant need for an area that has struggled with poor overall health, especially among children.

Students in the Mascoma Valley Regional School District are significantly more likely than other students around New Hampshire to abuse alcohol, use tobacco and smoke marijuana, according to a 2011 report from the Mascoma Valley Health Initiative, a nonprofit public health organization in Canaan. Poor access to dental care and mental health services has also been a concern in Mascoma towns, the report said.

Alice Ely, executive director of the Mascoma Valley Health Initiative, welcomed the idea of establishing a clinic in town.

“From my perspective, and the perspective of MVHI, we would love to see local access to primary care in that area,” Ely said. “I think the model (Samson) is proposing is great.”

Canaan used to have a pediatrics clinic run by Dartmouth-Hitchcock, but it closed in 2011 as a confluence of events — retiring staff, budget strains and falling patient numbers — made the facility impractical to keep open.

Indian River School teacher Sue Jukosky said the loss of the clinic was a blow to families, and has affected her students’ education. Students often miss a half-day of school to attend medical appointments in Lebanon. Her son and daughter-in-law, who have two young children, “were absolutely devastated” when the pediatrics clinic closed, Jukosky said, adding that she’d rather get her care at a smaller place closer to home than Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

“I would much prefer something that’s smaller and community based,” said Jukosky, a Grafton resident.

Canaan residents Michele Young and Susan Huntoon said they would like to have a clinic close to where they work at Harris Rebar, along Route 4.

“We both work in Canaan and, to me, that’s a big factor,” said Huntoon, 65. “(The proposed clinic) has such an array of services. It would bring more jobs into the community.”

Mascoma Community Healthcare is modeled after similar community health centers in Plainfield, Vt., Littleton, N.H., and Plymouth, N.H. It would be a non-profit organization, governed by a board with at least half its members being patients of the center.

The start-up costs are estimated at $2.9 million, paid for through a mix of low-interest loans and federal and state grants, according to the plan shown to residents this month.

But many questions remain, including whether the center can find the medical professionals to staff the center. The clinic organizers hope to contract with doctors at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital on a part-time basis. But so far, both of those providers are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Alice Peck Day is in the middle of a strategic planning process, considering what services to provide as it maps its future.

“We’re definitely taking a look at it, but we’re not in a position to make a decision about that,” said APD spokesman Dean Mudgett.

“It really is early in the process,” said DHMC spokesman Rick Adams. “We haven’t come to any conclusions as to how we’ll get involved, if at all.”

But the most immediate concern is whether enough residents will actually go to such a health center to receive the bulk of their care. Long-term, the goal is to have 8,000 patients, or 75 percent of the population of the five Mascoma towns. Samson believes the center can deliver quality health care for lower cost than people are paying now.

But first, he needs to convince residents to give it a try. “Health care is the only thing that’s going to keep us alive. It’s important. We need it,” Samson told the audience in Enfield. “More people have to have an active involvement in the health care system.”

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