At Home in Health Care
Althea Johnson returns to Wilmington to run New Hanover County's only FQHC
Althea Johnson has come ‘home’ in order to help run an organization aimed at providing people of all ages access to a comprehensive variety of health care services they wouldn’t normally have, something she thinks is a right.
Johnson is CEO of New Hanover Community Health Center, Inc., doing business as MedNorth Health Center, the only federally qualified health center (FQHC) in the county, located on North Fourth Street.
A FQHC qualifies for federal funding and enhanced reimbursement from Medicare and Medicaid because it serves an underserved area or population, offers a sliding fee schedule, provides comprehensive services, and has an ongoing quality assurance program and a governing board of directors. Its safety net services are often provided in an outpatient facility.
Johnson had a circuitous health-related career before returning to Wilmington in 2004. Originally from the city, she left to go to Shaw University and then moved to New Jersey where she worked for 20 years for Plainfield Neighborhood Health Services Corporation, an FQHC in New Jersey, eventually serving as COO. She also earned a master’s degree in management from New Jersey Institute of Technology.
She then went to Atlanta hoping to do something a bit different in the healthcare field and earned another bachelor’s degree from DeVry University in information technology, thinking she would work in health-related informatics, which would help her run her own reports. She uses the skills she learned there today.
Returning to Wilmington because her father was ill, Johnson worked for the New Hanover County Health Department as a health planner. In 2007, Johnson started her position as MedNorth’s deputy director, a position for which her 20 years in an FQHC and her other experience “uniquely qualified” her, she said. Her title was later changed to COO and now she’s CEO.
She sees her job as eliminating barriers to health care, pure and sometimes not so simple. Primary care is – or should be – the appropriate entry point for health care, she says. From there, patients at MedNorth can access a range of health care services available to people of all ages: adult and family medicine, dental care, women’s health, pediatric services, on-site pharmacy, and prenatal care. MedNorth recently added podiatry to this menu of services and Johnson notes there is a large diabetic population in the area and many of them suffer from foot issues.
In addition, for those who are seeking behavioral health help and are weary of the stigma attached to it, having the words “behavioral health” or something similar on the door might be off-putting. Under MedNorth’s model, a person who comes to visit a clinical provider can learn about behavioral health services and be introduced to providers; it’s an integrated, interdisciplinary team approach to providing healthcare.
Johnson points to the statistic showing that 27 percent of MedNorth patients have Medicaid, which many physicians don’t accept, as a way to illustrate what MedNorth does for the community. Nationwide, she says, many states expanded Medicaid eligibility; North Carolina did not. An individual or family can qualify for an FQHC discount if the household income is 200 percent of federal poverty level, currently at $20,780, or less.
There are many people in the Wilmington area who fall into that category, according to Johnson.
She talks about the Wilmington area having many service industry jobs at which folks make minimum wage or slightly above it. There are also many self-employed people, including those in the building industry and the arts. Many of them are responsible for their own health care costs.
“They’re not making enough money,” to pay for insurance, she says. “Gone are the days when your employer is paying 100 percent of your insurance cost; all of that cost has shifted to the employee.”
Johnson believes universal health care is the answer, ensuring access to health care to all, although she acknowledges this is a politicized debate.
Asked if she’s disheartened by the position so many people are in related to their health care, Johnson says there are a lot of aspects that health care providers can’t control, such as patients’ health care literacy and proximity to supermarkets that offer healthy food at affordable prices. So she focuses on what they can control, at least to a degree.
“I’m not disheartened,” she says. “There are a lot of different organizations that are working together to improve the health of residents.”
To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, visit www.terahwilson.com.
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