Owensville Medical Center struggles to meet the needs of its patients

March 23, 1993|By Deidre Nerreau McCabe | Deidre Nerreau McCabe,Staff Writer

Patients looking for swank doctors' offices with plush carpets and tasteful prints on the wall won't find them at the Owensville Medical Center in southern Anne Arundel County.

From the bland concrete exterior, complete with a stenciled sign painted on plywood, to the drab interior with mud-colored carpet, the place is pretty basic physically.

But when it comes to providing medical care to patients from all walks of life and income levels, its clients say the center, off Owensville Road, is second to none.

"They're like family to me," said Judy Burley, 45, of Shady Side, who has been treated for high blood pressure and diabetes at the center since 1975. "They've been so nice to me. They treat everybody real nice."

"They are wonderful," agreed Cheryl Joseph, a 23-year-old mother of two from Lothian, who said she went to several places looking for help for her 2-year-old, who had trouble keeping food down. Doctors elsewhere, she said, seemed to blame the problem on her.

"Now, I wouldn't go anywhere else," she said. "They go that extra step . . . they do whatever they can for you."

The center serves more than 2,500 patients, regardless of their ability to pay. To further that mission, the United Way Partnership of Anne Arundel County announced two weeks ago it had awarded the center a $5,000 grant for direct services.

Executive Director Maryellen Brady said the money will be used to provide prescriptions for patients who cannot afford them and for specialized services the center does not offer.

Although the center provides comprehensive primary medical TC care, and has a podiatrist and dermatologist on staff and an independent dentist and psychologist on the premises, services such as X-rays and specialties such as obstetrics must be obtained elsewhere. Doing so often presents a big problem, Ms. Brady said, because most doctors do not offer services on a sliding scale and many do not accept patients on medical assistance.

Recently, a patient needed X-rays but couldn't afford them, Ms. Brady said. Initially, the center was told the X-rays would cost $190. But, "we bargained them down to $94," she said. Such bargaining and bartering has become a way of life for the medical center, which makes ends meet by fund-raising in the community, attracting paying as well as sliding-scale patients and offering salaries to staff that are somewhat below what they could make elsewhere.

Dr. Wayne D. Bierbaum, the center's medical director for 3 1/2 years, acknowledges he could make more money if he left, but he is committed to staying at the Owensville center.

"I like working with the indigent population. Money doesn't drive everybody," he said. "I would rather work with sick people, and fill a need, than make a lot of money."

"The nature of the service they offer is really unique," said Francis B. Phillips, acting deputy health officer in the county. "We're looking at filling gaps in service, and they certainly provide an important role."

Even though half the center's 5,000 patients are able to pay its full fees through insurance or out-of-pocket, providing services to the other half, many of whom only pay $5 to see a doctor, requires the staff to think constantly about cost-saving strategies, said Ms. Brady.

When the center needed a full-time phlebotomist to draw blood, it couldn't afford to hire one. Instead, Ms. Brady negotiated with local laboratories and found one willing to provide the phlebotomist in exchange for the center's continued use of its services.

But even with creative tactics, next year is going to be a challenge because the center will not receive a $30,000 county grant due to budget cuts, a grant it has counted on since 1986.

"I'm not sure what we're going to do," Ms. Brady said. "I think we'll have to raise more than $50,000 from fund-raising to meet our [$650,000 annual] budget.

"But we've operated on a prayer and a shoestring for so long, I guess we'll do it somehow," she said with a laugh.

Since opening its doors in 1965, the nonprofit, private health center has gone through several metamorphoses. It started as a small, rural clinic, with doctors volunteering their time to provide medical care to people in southern Anne Arundel and Calvert counties.

Ten years later, when the federal government was pumping money into medical centers in rural areas, the current 8,100-square-foot facility was built and the program was expanded into a federally funded health maintenance organization. At its peak, the HMO had more than 15,000 patients at three locations.

But in the early 1980s, during the Reagan administration, the center lost most of its federal funding and the HMO was closed. The center was in danger of closing; it declared bankruptcy and most of its patients went elsewhere.

The community rallied, Ms. Brady said, determined to save the Owensville center. After forming its own board of directors, it reopened in 1983 as a fee-for-service medical facility and started gradually rebuilding its client base.

Since then, much effort has been put into recruiting quality physicians, nurses and support staff, Ms. Brady said.

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