Urgent care industry grows as consumers get cost conscious

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The Perfect Health urgent care clinic under construction at 3224 Peach Orchard Road isn’t the metro area’s first storefront medical facility. And it surely won’t be the last.

Such clinics – sometimes known by their less-endearing moniker: “doc-in-a-box”– are becoming a more common sight in Augusta and nationwide as consumers saddled with high-deductible health plans seek more convenient access and lower-cost care.

“At an urgent care facility, you don’t have to wait two to three weeks for an appointment – you just walk in,” said Dr. Troy Coon, a co-founder of Perfect Health, one of three Augusta-based urgent care chains expanding throughout the market.

The chains, which also include Urgent MD and MedNow, are among 7,000 companies nationwide catering to consumers who aren’t sick enough to make costly emergency room visits but can’t wait days to see their primary care physicians.

MedNow founder Dr. Mark Newton said the growth of urgent care centers is a market response to consumers having to shoulder more of their own medical costs through higher co-pays and high-deductible health care plans. For most unplanned medical visits, trips to emergency rooms are not only unnecessary, he said, but very costly.

“People don’t want to pay $2,200 for something they might could have gotten for $100,” said Newton, an emergency medicine physician who also represents District 123 in the State House of Representatives. “A lot of times, they could have been cared for somewhere more efficiently and more affordably.”

Being staffed with highly specialized personnel on a 24-hour basis makes emergency departments the most expensive places to receive care. But a 1986 federal law requires that emergency departments treat and stabilize patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay, which has encouraged many consumers to use emergency rooms for primary care needs.

This year Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia made headlines when it notified consumers it would not pay for emergency room visits deemed not to be emergencies. The company clarified that the policy wouldn’t apply to children under 13, if the visit was made on a holiday or Sunday, or if the consumer lived 15 miles or more from an urgent care facility.

Medical officials say people experiencing an obvious emergency, such as severe chest pain, uncontrollable bleeding or stroke, should go immediately to an emergency room. But for the estimated 80 percent of people who make non-emergency visits to emergency departments, the result can be expensive charges and long waits before they see a doctor.

“We have to take care of the sicker patients first – it’s not in the order you showed up,” said Mary Anne Nolan, director of emergency services at University Hospital. “That’s not a uniqueness to University.”

To divert patients with non-emergency urgencies away from the main hospital, University has built a network of five Prompt Care facilities throughout the metro area where clinicians provide after-hours care at rates comparable to a routine doctor’s visit. Two more Prompt Cares are expected to open next year.

Urgent MD, with five clinics spread between North Augusta and Thomson, is the largest urgent-care provider not affiliated with a hospital. The company is in the process of merging with Newton’s MedNow, which has four free-standing clinics. Newton, acting as the spokesman for the two companies, said MedNow has acquired real estate in Martinez for a fifth clinic. He said he did not know yet if the merged entity will adopt a single brand or continue operating under different names.

Perfect Health, the market’s newest entrant, has its main office on Washington Road in Evans. It expects its south Augusta clinic to open Dec. 20, and its third location, at 5060 Wrightsboro Road in Grovetown, to open March 1.

Augusta-Aiken also has two in-store retail clinics: one in the CVS pharmacy on Edgefield Road in North Augusta and the other in the Knox Avenue Walmart in North Augusta.

Nationally, the urgent-care market is fragmented, though a few major players have emerged, including Concentra, which has more than 300 clinics in 38 states, and MedExpress Urgent Care, which operates 180 clinics in 16 states, according to the Urgent Care Association of America.

Newton says the partnership between MedNow and Urgent MD will enable the respective companies to offer more convenience to patients as well as leverage Urgent MD’s primary care physicians to provide MedNow’s mostly walk-in customers with preventive care services and scheduled appointments.

Urgent care chains can provide just about any care offered at a physician’s office, and with in-house X-ray machines, CT scanners and a wide variety of laboratory and pharmacy services, most can take care of any routine emergency, including broken bones, lacerations, respiratory infections and the flu.

And usually in a fraction of the time.

“You can end up waiting four or five hours in an emergency department to be seen,” said Dr. Robert Garnett, a partner in Perfect Health. “You can walk in here and 45 minutes later be back at your house.”



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Urgent care industry grows as consumers get cost conscious

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