NorthPoint braces as the unemployed lose insurance


Current economic conditions are putting a strain on “safety net” health providers such as NorthPoint Health and Wellness Center and Hennepin County Medical Center, said NorthPoint CEO Stella Whitney West. “Health care is a basic need. We know prevention pays off in the long run, but now because people don’t have health insurance, they are putting off things like routine medical check ups and cancer screening.”

Company layoffs have left many people without health insurance, she added, the county is cutting its budget, and Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty is proposing to restrict the eligibility for MinnCare [the state’s health care subsidy program for low income working people].

“People are not going to seek preventative care; they might wait until they have to go into the emergency room or the hospital,” she added. “By then, it might be too late for things that might have been cured if identified early. The bottom line is you don’t save money by eliminating preventative health care. It costs more money to treat sicker people.”

In response to anticipated budget cuts, NorthPoint plans to recruit more volunteers, she added, including volunteer doctors, to help with staffing and services.

The Wellness Center

NorthPoint’s campus at 1313 Penn Ave. N. includes two separate buildings: a medical clinic to the south and a human services building to the north. The agency’s plans to build a North Minneapolis Community Wellness Center (replacing the human services building) suffered a setback late last year. The original plan included a University of Minnesota Child and Family Center, a YMCA adult fitness center, North Point’s human services department, and offices for Hennepin County’s Human Services Public Health Department. But in late 2008, the University dropped out.

“After looking more closely at the numbers, their feeling was that it was a commitment they could not do. They didn’t have the funding, and didn’t see where their projected revenue would let them be a partner in this facility,” Whitney West said.

Dante Cicchetti, the University’s head professor at the Institute of Child Development, would have directed the North Side Child and Family Center and might still offer some services to North Minneapolis residents, she added. NorthPoint, U of M, and Hennepin County officials, as well as Cicchetti, will soon meet to work out details. “We want to make sure the expertise and services he can bring are still made available to this community,” Whitney West said.

Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Stenglein said that University representatives told the commissioners that the building was too expensive.

“I was skeptical of that, because of how much they’ve been spending on their own building projects on campus.” The county, however, is still committed to the project, but now that the university is no longer a partner, they will be revising the plan. The human services building (a former synagogue) will still be razed, he said, because “it is beyond its useful life. But now we have to look at every way we can to save money. It’s a new world order.”

The University of Minnesota is going forward with another North Side plan, its Urban Research and Outreach/ Engagement Center (UROC) at 2001 Plymouth Ave. N., renovating a strip mall that included the former Snow Foods store and Lucille’s Kitchen. (See related NorthNews story.)

The YMCA still plans to be part of the NorthPoint project, according to Harold Mezile, president and CEO of YMCA Metro Minneapolis. The NorthPoint collaboration will include a YMCA-run fitness center with cardio and strength training equipment and a whirlpool, a child care center for parents who are working out, and aerobics studios.

(Mezile said he expects another North Side project–the YMCA’s West Broadway building renovation at 1711 West Broadway–to be finished in early March.)

Whitney West said the new Wellness Center building will use the “integration model” of care, with cross-functional teams. “We need a different type of space. Small groups will meet; that might include a Hennepin County child protection worker, a NorthPoint doctor, a social service case manager, someone from a domestic abuse program. The team will focus on holistic health and wellness, plus it will also ask what the person being served is bringing to the table.

“If you’re coming here because you need help, we’ll provide it, but we’ll do it in partnership with you. Do you have extended family, are you involved in a church or school? What resources do you have? A lot of times, people get stuck. The idea is to come up with a better plan that is workable and sustainable. We problem solve, accessing resources within our own community.”

In the future, she said, there might be a plan to connect the clinic building to the new wellness building, and transfer non-clinical programs to the new facility. “We could then expand clinic services.”

Completion of the new building might be in 2012, she added. “The economy just kind of came and hit us. It slowed down projects, although this one is still on the drawing table.”

New at NorthPoint

She said that recent changes include expanding services in the behavioral health clinic. “We have about 10 [ongoing] groups–including anger management for teenagers, men who are transitioning into the community from prison, women dealing with depression, children ages 7 to 10–that meet regularly. We have found that people do better in groups. Groups take away the stigma of receiving mental health services and the feeling of isolation.”

Express Care is a new NorthPoint service, she added. “We have set up a special clinic here for people with acute illnesses, such as a sore throat or cough. You can come in, get checked, get a prescription and be on your way. Some people only need about a 15-minute check-up. It frees up time for other appointments [where health needs are more involved].”

Whitney West said they are doing more outreach through their community health workers, and have a collaborative program with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota that focuses on healthy eating. “A lot of illness occurs because people have gotten into bad habits. Our partners on this include the University of Minnesota’s extension service, the City of Minneapolis, WIC, and the Harrison neighborhood.”(The Harrison Neighborhood Association recently launched a plan to start a natural foods co-op.)

Other changes include the clinic going entirely paperless. “We have electronic health records. For our patients, that means increased safety. The provider can see the patient’s entire record; if they went to HCMC and doctors discovered an allergic reaction to something, the system picks it up. You’re not relying on the patient’s memory of something. The provider can do a better job of making a diagnosis.”

Whitney West said that since she started her job a year ago, she has been pleasantly surprised by the love and sense of ownership that the community has for NorthPoint. “People see us as a stabilizing force in North Minneapolis. We’ve been here for 40 years and we don’t have to prove ourselves. This organization truly is a community organization; close to 60 percent of our board are actually patients at this clinic.”