191127_HEALTH

Physician Bill West speaks to a patient at HealthNet of Rock County in downtown Janesville. The nonprofit offers free or low-cost health care to underserved Rock County residents.

JANESVILLE

A person who is homeless and diabetic might have BadgerCare to help him obtain insulin, but without a stable home, he might not have a cold place to store it.

HealthNet of Rock County tries to help those people—and others—when possible, but until Monday, state law made it difficult for free charitable clinics to help the homeless, HealthNet CEO Ian Hedges said.

However, the state Legislature on Monday passed two bills that Hedges said will help HealthNet offer care to more people and recruit more practitioners.

One bill will allow doctors, nurses, dentists and other health care providers to be covered by the state’s malpractice insurance when they are serving the homeless at charitable clinics.

That opens the door for more homeless people to obtain services through HealthNet, Hedges said.

Without malpractice insurance, providers were limited in how they could treat homeless patients. In the future, such patients will be able to go to HealthNet for insulin storage and maybe get a checkup or screening while they’re at it.

The second bill makes health care providers who work for charitable clinics eligible for the state’s health care provider loan assistance program.

That program helps doctors and dentists pay off student loans up to a certain amount. Before the bill was passed, doctors at charitable clinics could not participate.

Because of the demand for low-cost health care, HealthNet can no longer rely solely on volunteer doctors. Hiring doctors is difficult for charitable clinics because they can’t pay nearly as much as hospitals or other facilities, Hedges said.

“We constantly struggle trying to hire dentists and other health care providers,” he said. “This allows us a little bit of a boost to recruit quality dentists to come into this area and provide top-notch care.”

Staff at HealthNet asked local legislators to support the bill and received positive feedback from both sides of the political aisle, Hedges said.

Hedges also spoke at the Assembly hearings for both bills in July.

Changes won’t happen immediately because HealthNet staff is working with the state on guidelines for the new laws, Hedges said.

HealthNet hopes to use the loan assistance legislation as a recruiting tool when the nonprofit brings on a new dentist in July, he said.

Homelessness and the lack of affordable housing have been hot topics in Janesville and Rock County this year.

One of HealthNet’s most significant initiatives to help the homeless is the creation of a behavioral health services department, which is slated for 2021, Hedges said.

Access to behavioral health services is limited, especially for people who have no insurance or are underinsured. HealthNet has created a task force to determine which behavioral health services are most needed in the area, Hedges said.

The behavioral health department will be added after HealthNet moves into a new facility on Kennedy Road in 2021. Blackhawk Community Credit Union announced in February it intends to donate the building to the nonprofit.

With the new building will come more rooms, behavioral health services, expanded dental services and a dental office tailored to help people with special needs, Hedges said.

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