Mascoma Community Health Center pursuing partnership that unlocks federal support

By NORA DOYLE-BURR

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-28-2023 5:28 PM

CANAAN — Leaders of the Mascoma Community Health Center and a Franklin, N.H.-based federally qualified health center are dusting off a partnership plan that was shelved in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The plan would make the Mascoma clinic on Roberts Road near Route 4 in Canaan the third clinic operated by the Franklin-based HealthFirst Family Care Center, which also has a location in Laconia, N.H.

It would expand services at all three locations and provide Mascoma with the benefits of a federally qualified health center, which are “critical for our sustainability and critical for our patients,” Mike Samson, Mascoma’s interim executive director, said in a Friday interview at the clinic.

Such benefits include:

■A federal grant to help with operating expenses;

■An educational loan forgiveness program for providers;

■Higher reimbursement rates from Medicare and Medicaid;

■access to a lower-cost prescription drug program;

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■Participation in the federal malpractice insurance pool.

Audrey Goudie, HealthFirst’s director of marketing and communications, expressed similar enthusiasm for the partnership, but said there are several regulatory steps remaining.

“We’re very eager to be there,” she said in a Tuesday phone interview.

The partnership requires approval from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Charitable Trust Unit and support from the governor and Executive Council, as well as the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

“Nothing is a done deal until it’s a done deal,” Goudie said. “We don’t want to set expectations that we can’t meet.”

On Friday, Samson said he expects the Mascoma and HealthFirst boards will approve an agreement this week and hopes that the regulators will give their approval by September.

Since the Mascoma clinic’s doors opened six years ago, it has grown to provide care for more than 5,500 patients. As one of the few practices in the Upper Valley accepting new primary care customers, it continues to add new patients at a rate of about 50 per month, according to materials provided by Samson, Canaan’s former town administrator.

Still, the clinic — which currently has 12 employees and an annual operating budget of about $1.8 million — has faced some challenges. It had to close its dental service last summer when its dentist left for private practice. That left about 1,500 patients without a dental home. But the clinic’s leaders continue to seek a replacement and are hoping to reopen the practice later this year, Samson said.

The facility also faces financial challenges. Some 40% of patients have Medicare or Medicaid, or are uninsured. Those government programs reimburse facilities at a lower rate than private insurers. That gap is part of what Samson hopes the partnership with HealthFirst will address. For now, that gap is covered by roughly $550,000 in annual charitable donations and another $100,000 in grants, which he said is unsustainable.

Once the federally qualified status is secured, the plan is to use charitable donations toward expanding services such as radiography, physical therapy, expanded laboratory services and growing the dental practice, Samson said.

Under the agreement, Mascoma health center would retain ownership of the 14,000-square-foot building on Roberts Road. HealthFirst would pay rent for the use of the space, which Mascoma will use to pay off a loan it received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to maintain the building, Samson said. Day-to-day operations would be managed by HealthFirst, but Mascoma patients would have representation on HealthFirst’s board.

HealthFirst does not currently have a dental practice, but joining forces with Mascoma would allow it to provide that service. HealthFirst, which has been operating for nearly 30 years old, offers behavioral health care that Mascoma plans to add.

With three related practices, Samson said they hope “always have backup.”

A public listening session on the clinic’s plan to become an FQHC is scheduled to take place at 9 a.m. on Saturday at the health center or via Zoom at https://tinyurl.com/yjdzkp4b. Comments about the merger can also be directed to director@mascomahealth.org or P.O. Box 550, Canaan, N.H. 03741.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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