Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States opened its Columbia medical office this month, returning the health maintenance organization-style of health care to Howard County, but offering more choices in local physicians.
The 17,500-square-foot health center in the Gateway office park is the first in the county for the HMO, filling a dead zone in the company's coverage area between Baltimore and Washington.
The office will have full-time and part-time physicians. But new to the program is a range of choices for patients, including more than 30 community physicians.
"We know people want to stay with their physicians," said Dr. Amy Compton Phillips, internist and executive director at the clinic. "The health care industry is changing. The current pendulum is toward choice. If we have serious restrictions on choice, we're not going to survive."
The strategy of offering members a choice of local physicians isn't new, Phillips said. Although most patient services are handled exclusively by doctors who work only for Kaiser, the mid-grade and most expensive versions of the health plan have always offered the choice of a limited number of community physicians.
In Howard County, the choice is being expanded, Phillips said, both for the top-grade and the mid-grade versions of the plan. Senior Advantage Medicare members will still be limited to physicians within the Kaiser clinics, she said.
The health plan expects to expand the wider choice of community doctors throughout the area if the strategy works well in Howard County, Phillips said.
Two other new features being introduced at the Columbia clinic are an ombudsman, to work as a liaison with community doctors and handle billing, and a patient advocate to handle member complaints.
In those positions, the effort is to give the all-in-one clinic a more personal touch.
"We're trying to bring back the small-office feel," Phillips said. "We're trying to make it as streamlined as we can. Any private doctor's office knows that it's the service you provide that keeps patients coming back."
Those strategies may be very necessary for a new HMO to survive in Howard County. Although Patuxent Medical Group was once so popular that it shut other HMOs out of the county, it lost thousands of patients three years ago to plans that offered more choices.
Jonathan Weiner, professor of health policy and management with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said Kaiser has come in with a good plan.
"That's an interesting strategy. It allows them to offer a wider choice with less capital," he said. "Right from the first day, Columbia had an HMO clinic on site. There are people who will probably be pleased that there is an HMO. This continues that. Many people are more comfortable with an independent doctor's office, and this gives the choice of both."
Kaiser Permanente also is negotiating with Howard County General Hospital to add it as a hospital choice for the plan. George Washington Hospital in Washington was recently added to the network, as was the Johns Hopkins network of hospitals for members with the top-grade version of the health plan, Phillips said.
The new center has doctors in internal medicine, family medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology full time. It has part-time doctors in dermatology, general surgery, allergy and, starting next month, orthopedics.
The center has a full laboratory and pharmacy. It will begin offering nutrition counseling and clinical pharmacy counseling next month. A radiology lab is scheduled to open by March, Phillips said, and urgent-care services are expected to be available at the center by midyear.
Managers at Kaiser are hoping the new choices and personal touch will help the health plan become a formidable force in the Baltimore and Washington markets.
"We're not known in the Howard County area," Phillips said. "We've got to prove ourselves."