Hiring nurse practitioner helped slash costs

Clinic has cut expensive visits to doctors, ER

Nurse practitioner Rhonda Bentz works four hours a day providing free services for Don Chalmers Ford employees and their family members. The clinic is close to the Rio Rancho, N.M., dealership, allowing workers to go there and get back to work quickly. "We give service without appointments. They can just walk right in," says Bentz.

About 12 years ago, Don Chalmers Ford in Rio Rancho, N.M., was wrestling with its high health care costs, as was everyone else.

"We asked our insurance provider to get down in the numbers and see what was driving the cost," says Gary Housley, who took over as dealer principal after Don Chalmers died last year.

"The thing we learned is that we had a lot of dual-income families with kids. If the kids got sick, they couldn't get to a doctor," because neither parent could get off work for a scheduled appointment, recalls Housley. So instead, they delay and delay getting medical attention until the situation got serious. Then, "they'd go to the emergency room."

Since the emergency room is the most expensive care available, the Chalmers team decided to take action.

"We hired a nurse practitioner. Now we have our own clinic," says Housley.

Located in a Chalmers-owned office building just two blocks from the dealership, the clinic is staffed by Rhonda Bentz, a veteran nurse practitioner who works four hours a day, seeing an average of 1.4 patients per hour. She conducts sports physicals for the children of the dealership's 180 employees, administers flu shots, takes blood pressure readings and prescribes certain medications.

"We give service without appointments. They can just walk right in," says Bentz, a confident, cheerful woman who spent 27 years working in emergency rooms. The visits are free and there are no co-pays.

"I remind them I'm a mid-level provider. If I haven't cured them by two visits, by the third visit we're sending them to a specialist," she says.

The clinic paid off with an almost immediate benefit: a 40 percent reduction in visits to primary-care physicians by employees and their dependents, says Lee Butler, Chalmers' director of performance excellence.

Kirk Meyer, Chalmers' CFO, estimates the clinic saves employees $18,000 annually in co-pays alone. He bases his estimate on an average of two family visits per year from each of the 180 families multiplied by the company's $50 co-pay. Altogether, he estimates employees have saved $420,000 in co-pays since the clinic launched 12 years ago.

The clinic also helps the dealership keep insurance rates in line, though Meyer says that is difficult to quantify, especially in today's rapidly changing health care environment.

"When our insurance is quoted every year, they know for a fact our employees are using her to help keep the cost out of the Blue Cross system," he says.

Employees absolutely love the personable Bentz.

"She's more popular than Santa Claus at the Christmas party," says Butler.

Because the clinic is so close to the dealership, employees can get over and back quickly and be present when Bentz is examining family members. That means they can better monitor their health and well being.

Says Housley: "If we have somebody managing your health, you'll be healthier than if it's unmanaged. We have found people with diabetes that didn't know they had diabetes. Some of those things are life-changing events."

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@autonews.com

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