Petaluma Health Center gears up for influx of patients

Just one year from the full implementation of federal health-insurance changes known as "Obamacare," the Petaluma Health Center is gearing up for as many as 5,000 new patients in the coming years.

The health center, which last year moved into a new 53,000-square-foot facility on North McDowell Boulevard, has recently hired five new health-care providers, including two medical doctors, a psychologist and two physician assistants.

It's the latest growth spurt for the health center as it prepares for thousands of newly insured patients under President Obama's Affordable Care Act.

"We're busy, we have a lot of demand. With the Affordable Care Act, we're anticipating quite a bit of growth in the next few years," said Jeanne Zabout, the health center's chief clinical operations officer.

The recent hires have "filled out" medical services currently being provided at the health center, said Kathie Powell, the health center's CEO. Meanwhile, the health center building's northwest corner sits empty, ready to accommodate future expansion.

Like many health centers in the North Coast and across the country, the Petaluma Health Center has seen rapid growth in recent years. The new clinic itself was partly funded with a $9 million grant from the Affordable Care Act.

With Obama's return to the White House for a second term after winning the Nov. 6 election, the threat of a possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act has faded. In states where the law will be fully implemented, health-care officials and professionals are getting ready for a flood of newly insured patients.

Under the Affordable Care Act, $1.5 billion is being targeted for new construction and renovation projects at health centers, while another $9.5 billion is going to expanding medical services over five years.

One of the main goals of the new health-care law is to help transform the medical industry from one that simply profits from illness to one that promotes health, prevention and wellness. For example, the new system will reward programs that reduce costly hospital re-admissions.

One of the health center's doctors is Dr. Jose Chibras, an internal-medicine doctor with extensive experience working with chronically ill patients. Chibras, formerly the CEO of a network of clinics that covered Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties, said he was extremely impressed with Petaluma's "patient-centered" model.

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