Q & A with Tricia Peter-Clark

President and CEO of ConnextCare discusses further expanding the organization. It provides primary, dental and mental care and plans to increase its presence in Oswego schools

By Mary Beth Roach

Q: ConnextCare seems to have grown exponentially throughout Oswego County. When and how did it grow so extensively?

A: The growth really happened in 2013 when Northern Oswego County Health Services [now ConnextCare], Oswego Health and Oswego County Opportunities colaborated on what was known as preserving primary care safety net initiative. The hospital, at the time, had three primary care practices in Mexico, Parish and Phoenix that they were operating. Oswego County Opportunities had two practices — one in Fulton, one in Oswego — and they were in some financial distress. So, the group had come together to talk about how those five health centers could come under the umbrella of ConnextCare so that we could maintain health service sites for access in our county.

They had been working on this initiative and had received some outside grant dollars to go through the due diligence efforts for consolidating those practices.  At the same time, ConnextCare had applied for some new funding to the federal government and was awarded, which actually accelerated the advancement. They had to be operational within 120 days of award for those funds, which meant Jan. 1, 2013, the practice sites needed to be under one umbrella.

In 2013, they went from one health center to six health centers and in January 2013 they brought on the Mexico Middle School school-based health center. That was an additional site that opened, so we have school-based health centers in the APW, Sandy Creek, Pulaski and Mexico districts, with a dental site in Fairgrieve Elementary School.

Q:  How many offices do you have in this county and what services do the providers offer?

A: We have 15 practice sites and we offer medical services — primary care, dental and mental health services. Dental right now is located in our Fulton site, as well as at our Pulaski site and in several of our school-based health centers.

Q: Is ConnextCare experiencing staffing shortages for nurses and or doctors?

A: We are experiencing a shortage related to licensed practical nurses or LPNS, that has been the biggest challenge for us. We have a lot of nursing homes in Oswego County and that’s where a lot of our licensed practical nurses work, and in the hospital system as well. My medical staff are amazing ambassadors for our organization. They take a lot of students from Upstate, St. Joseph’s, Binghamton  — family practice nurse practitioners or pediatric nurse practitioners, as well as some residents — and bring them into our facility, provide the clinical oversight and mentorship for them for their clinical hours while they’re pursuing their degrees. Once we do that, several of them apply and work with ConnextCare.

Q: Do you think this helps attract providers to Oswego County?

A: We are a federally qualified health center working in a rural, underserved community with a significant health professional shortage area designation. A lot of them [staff] live in our communities. They want to give back to the community they grew up in. At the same time, we can offer some opportunities to apply for loan forgiveness through the National Health Service Board program, which provides some assistance to those who are coming out of their graduate programs with significant debt. That’s another attractive option.

Q: When and why did ConnextCare start to integrate the mental health services into your location?

A: About six years ago, ConnextCare was able to apply for some dollars through the Health Resources and Services Administration for behavioral health integration and primary care and were successful, which allowed for us to employ our licensed clinical social workers at our main health centers — a child psychiatrist one day a week in office, and we contract with an independent provider for adult psychiatry services. We also have one psychiatric physician assistant and three other psychiatric nurse practitioners and another one joining us in June. We’ve really grown that program. The need is just so prevalent, and the patients really need to continue to have access to care. Telehealth has been a great opportunity for us to expand. A lot of our mental health patients are really taking advantage of that. It’s a great avenue for us to ensure we continue to meet the needs, but it also offers our primary care team an outlet when they have a case that’s beyond their primary care training that they have a colleague right in house that they can do a warm hand-off to, to better  help better assist the patient with the care they need.

Q: Do you have plans to expand beyond Oswego County?

A: At this time, we do not have plans to expand outside of Oswego County, but we do have plans to expand within Oswego County. In addition to our primary care, mental health and dental services. We also do some substance abuse disorder services to try and address some of the concerns we have in our community as well. As far as expansion goes, we are in the process of working with the Oswego City School District on expanding a school-based health center site in one of their schools. We are getting ready to submit a federal grant next week to the Health Resources and Services Administration to financially support the expansion of that site.

ConnextCare just finished the development of what we’re calling our external respiratory care center. It’s a new building located behind our Pulaski office, which has two negative pressure rooms, so that patients can drive under the canopy and they can either have their COVID-19 testing in their vehicle or they can come into an exam room. We’re just waiting on the final approval from the NYS Department of Health to be able to open that. We have construction plans in place to renovate some space in the Pulaski office to open up an acute care wing to bring back more of our acute care walk-in services that we used to have in Pulaski and that construction is slated to start on June 5.  By the end of summer, we hope to have those services up and running for the community as well. We are working right now on design plans to move our Oswego office. We are hopeful that by the middle of next year we’ll be in our new practice site in Oswego and that will include the expansion of dental.