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Highmark unveils mobile clinic

Ben Schmitt
| Tuesday, May 10, 2016, 12:48 p.m.
The Highmark Health Care on the Go mobile clinic is parked on the North Shore on Tuesday, May 10, 2016, for its media unveiling.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Highmark Health Care on the Go mobile clinic is parked on the North Shore on Tuesday, May 10, 2016, for its media unveiling.
The waiting area in the Highmark Health Care on the Go mobile clinic leads to two exam rooms. The clinic was opened to the media on Tuesday, May 10, 2016, on the North Shore.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The waiting area in the Highmark Health Care on the Go mobile clinic leads to two exam rooms. The clinic was opened to the media on Tuesday, May 10, 2016, on the North Shore.
“To be able to bring this mobile clinic out to our underserved populations is almost a dream come true,” said Barbara Gray, Highmark’s senior vice president of clinical services.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
“To be able to bring this mobile clinic out to our underserved populations is almost a dream come true,” said Barbara Gray, Highmark’s senior vice president of clinical services.
The Highmark Health Care on the Go mobile clinic has two exam rooms. The clinic was opened to the media on Tuesday, May 10, 2016, on the North Shore.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
The Highmark Health Care on the Go mobile clinic has two exam rooms. The clinic was opened to the media on Tuesday, May 10, 2016, on the North Shore.

Health insurer Highmark on Tuesday unveiled a 40-foot mobile clinic scheduled to visit rural areas in Pennsylvania and West Virginia as a way to increase patient access.

The sky blue Health Care on the Go doctor's office should serve about 5 percent of Highmark members covered through Medicaid, Medicare Advantage and Affordable Care Act plans, said Barbara Gray, Highmark's senior vice president of clinical services. The vehicle is a mix of an RV and a doctor's office.

Highmark plans to target at-risk members who often forgo medical care, Gray told reporters on the North Shore from one of the mobile clinic's two patient exam rooms.

“The most important thing for me is bringing those members in, delivering the care, making sure it's convenient and connecting them with providers and the health plan,” she said.

Highmark refurbished the truck, which had been used as a pop-up wellness center, for about $350,000. Gray, a registered nurse, said it will cost about $500,000 annually to keep it on the road.

Mobile clinics are going through a renaissance, said Caterina Hill, a Harvard Medical School research associate and co-investigator of the national Mobile Health Map project. The project evaluates the impact of mobile clinics.

“Because of the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies are now responsible for a lot of people they were not responsible for before,” Hill said. “Creative investments like mobile clinics focus on prevention.”

She said there are 2,000 such clinics across the country, yielding about 6 million annual visits.

Highmark's wheelchair-accessible mobile office is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act and contains refrigeration to store laboratory specimens and medicine. Services available include annual checkups and immunizations; colorectal cancer screenings; smoking and tobacco-use cessation counseling; blood draws; osteoporosis testing for women; and postpartum care.

Besides two exam rooms, the clinic has a waiting area and a laboratory.

The clinic will open in June at an undetermined location in West Virginia to serve regional patients.

Gray estimated the clinic could serve 20 to 30 patients a day.

Highmark has said that providing medical care for people who buy insurance through the federal Affordable Care Act's marketplace is costing more than the insurer anticipated, as people across the country who have purchased those plans have been sicker than expected.

Gray said the aim of the mobile unit is to emphasize preventative health that can help keep health care costs down.

“This is a longer-term play,” she said. “Frankly, from the business side, we want to see what the value is and uptake is from our members. That is why we are initially launching small with one mobile clinic. Then we will determine where to take the program next.”

Hill called mobile clinics a “win-win” for insurers and patients.

“It's really important for insurance companies to find ways to encourage customers to stay healthy,” she said. “Highmark will be able to save lives and money in the long run.”

Highmark plans to contact members it identifies as having certain medical needs and invite them to the clinic.

“To have the opportunity to bring the provider and payer together in a very different way will hopefully provide models that will solve the health care crisis in the country,” Gray said. “Aside from world peace and world hunger, there's nothing more important than fixing the health care issues we have in our country. To be able to bring this mobile clinic out to our underserved populations is almost a dream come true.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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