ALAMEDA COUNTY, Calif. - In a county where health-care coverage is unaffordable for more than 200,000 residents, Alameda County health officials are undertaking a project that could bring basic health care services as close as your local fire station.
In an effort to get primary and preventive care to those who most need it and to cut down on expensive emergency room visits, the Alameda County Health Care Services is attempting to launch a unique pilot program in which fire stations serve as a type of health clinic.
"When people get primary care, things go great. We know that," said Alex Briscoe, director of the county's health care services. "The problem is, there is a huge supply and demand disconnect on preventive and primary care in our community."
The idea got a boost last week when the county's board of supervisors allocated $750,000 for the proposed project -- which in its basic outline would staff fire stations with three people -- including a paramedic and medical or drug practitioner -- to help residents who do not have health care deal with simple health issues like vaccinations, prescriptions or sinus infections.
Briscoe said, in theory, such a program could save millions of dollars in unnecessary emergency room visits and paramedic response services. In return, it could make clinical services more accessible to those who need the county's safety net services the most.
Briscoe said the genesis of the program came from the simple goal of trying to get people more access to care. Another aim, Briscoe stressed, is getting people to use such an offering -- which is where fire stations came in.
"People trust firefighters," he said.
If money falls into place, the idea is for the pilot program to roll out at five stations in poorer neighborhoods where the most avoidable emergency room visits originate, such as Hayward, San Leandro and East and West Oakland.
Currently, the proposed locations for the startup clinics would be in two Oakland fire stations -- one in East and one in West Oakland -- one Hayward station and stations in Union City and San Leandro.
Briscoe said he estimates the program will run about $2.5 million in startup costs, and operational cost will be about $2 million per year, although he adds costs are somewhat fluid since this type of program has not been done.
The cost of the program could be covered using a combination of funds from different sources, such as the county's Measure A -- a voter-approved tax in the county used for health care services -- MediCal reimbursement for care given at the clinics, contributions from participating municipalities, as well as money from philanthropy groups.
Briscoe said exact financing for the program is still in flux as the county continues to talk to city officials and labor officials, but added he has received positive feedback from the local fire community.
If all goes well and enough capital is secured, Briscoe said the first clinics in fire stations could be operational by July 2012.