Grant helps Houghton County patients

GWINN – It can be hard enough to obtain medical care in a rural area. Getting behavioral health services can be difficult as well. Now a $100,000 grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan to the Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center will make it easier for patients to get both at the same time at the same spot.

Officials from BCBSM handed the grant to the Gwinn-based center Friday. The grant will expand health care services at clinics in Houghton and Calumet, with the UGLFHC facilitating efforts and integrating behavioral health services within the primary care clinics.

Integrated health care combines medical and behavioral services to address the overall health of a patient. According to BCBSM, 70 percent of all heath care visits are generated by psychosocial factors, with these factors often driving the need for medical care. The BCBSM grant will allow the center the address depression and substance abuse in patients age 13 and older.

Dr. Mary Tobin-Anderson, a physician with the UGLFHC, said the need for medical and behavioral care goes back and forth, “because if you’re struggling with behavioral health, it’s hard to handle medical problems.

“And if a patient has medical issues, it’s hard to handle behavioral problems,” she said.

The UGFHC, which has two clinics at Gwinn and KI Sawyer, already offers behavioral health services along with primary care, pediatric services, obstetrical services, geriatric care, prescriptions for qualified individuals and dental services.

“Now that it’s right in our office, it’s not so much an issue,” Tobin-Anderson said of the behavioral aspect of care.

Reliable transportation, gasoline money and child care are challenges many rural residents face when trying to obtain health care, Tobin-Anderson acknowledged, so the new grant will make it easier for people living in or near Houghton and Calumet to get medical and behavioral health care in one spot.

“It doesn’t require going to a separate place or even a separate time, so people are accessing services in one place,” she said.

Patients will be able to see a social worker or counselor at a clinic as well, she said, to be treated for what can be a variety of behavioral issues.

They are, Tobin-Anderson said, “Sometimes depression, anxiety, substance abuse or just generally family issues, learning how to cope with stressors.”

The integrated seems to be working, she said.

“It is resulting in healthier patients, healthier families and hopefully healthier communities,” Tobin-Anderson said.

Donald A. Simila, UGLFHC chief executive officer, expressed gratitude over the $100,000 grant.

“It has always been our intent to treat the whole person in our services,” Simila said.

The UGLFHC helps underserved areas or populations, offering a sliding fee scale.

The $100,000 grant will involve the hiring of a licensed master social worker and a licensed bachelor social worker, with a second LMSW to be hired as part of a federal grant. Patients in the two Houghton County clinics will be screened for depression and substance abuse, and those screening positive will be offered health coaching from the behavioral health staff members.

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 15 percent of Houghton County’s population is uninsured, resulting in high rates of hypertension, diabetes and obesity; delayed entry into prenatal case and low rates of childhood immunizations; and a shortage of primary care and behavioral health care providers. Also, the county’s median household income is $10,000 lower than the Michigan median.

“Safety net clinics, including the Upper Great Lakes Family Health Center, provide access to care for tens of thousands of vulnerable, uninsured Michigan residents and without these clinics, patients would delay and even forego care at great cost to themselves, their families and the health care system,” said Jeff Connolly, president of West Michigan Operations and Managed Care, BCBSM, in a news release.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is