Niagara Gazette

January 31, 2014

Memorial opens center aimed at coordinating mental and medical health care

By Rick Pfeiffer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center Vice President Sanjay Chadha stood in the hospital’s new Wellness Connection Center on Thursday afternoon and smiled broadly.

“This,” he said exuberantly, “is our Super Bowl.”

With a who’s who of government officials doctors and patients looking on Chadha and others snipped a red ribbon to open the center, billed as “a revolutionary new coordinated care program that will integrate behavioral health, primary care, wellness services, and community and social support services under one roof.”

“This will be a model the community will watch,” said Arthur Wingerter, president of Univera Healthcare. 

Housed on the sixth floor of Memorial’s Schoellkopf Building, in a newly constructed $1.98 million facility, the outpatient program will enhance accessibility, improve patient care and reduce the cost of care by reducing emergency room visits and hospital admissions for those in need of both behavioral and primary health care.

“The Niagara Wellness Connection Center will afford patients convenient access to primary care, behavioral health treatment, addiction screening, health and wellness education, fitness activities, community support services and financial and health insurance counseling, all under one roof,” Memorial Vice President and COO Sheila Kee said. “(Today) we are celebrating a new model of care.” 

The integrated, patient-centered care model, which is new to Western New York, is expected to provide better outcomes for patients, while at the same time greatly reducing the cost of care.

“Focusing on the coordination of care is an incredible advance,” said Wingerter, whose company will provide a grant to help fund operations at the center. “It (will lead to) a reduction in revenue (to the medical center), as (an insurance) payor, I like that.”

The center should also address a significant community need. The Synthesis Project, an initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has found that more than 68 percent of adults diagnosed with a mental disorder also have companion medical issues.

Medical Center physicians said people with serious mental illnesses are at a greater risk of premature death, largely due to complications from untreated, preventable chronic illnesses like obesity, hypertension, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

“We know the saying, ‘sound body, sound mind’, well it’s not just a saying, it’s true,” Dr. Hak J. Ko, Memorial’s medical director for behavioral health services said. “A problem in the body will lead to a problem in the mind. We need to treat the person as a whole.”

The centralized services available at the center, Ko said, will make his job easier.

“The chronically mentally ill tend to have more problems with physical health, substance abuse and social issues,” Ko said. “Now they will be able to get all these services in one location. As a psychiatrist, it will allow me to provide better coordination of care for the patients we are serving.”

Construction of the Niagara Wellness Connection Center was funded by a $1.98 million HEAL 21 grant from the New York State Department of Health. Operations will be supported by an additional $795,000 state Department of Health grant and a $70,000 Community and Member Health Improvement grant from Univera Healthcare.

The center replaces an outdated outpatient mental health clinic that was located on the medical center’s sixth floor. The space had not been updated for decades and was no longer adequate to provide effective, therapeutic care.

Kyle Lorence, a center patient, said he was looking forward to using the services at the new center.

“I’ll really enjoy coming here for treatment,” he said.