Muskego - Free doctor visits, free lab tests and free medicine for staffers and families all while the Muskego-Norway School District saves money. It seems too good to be true, but school officials are gambling that their free clinic will more than pay for itself.

With the clinic, the district can avoid paying for doctor visits and lab tests and it buys commonly used medicines such as those for high blood pressure and diabetes at cost. Fewer substitute teachers will be needed to cover for teachers who are seeing their family doctor because now teachers can slip out to the clinic at lunch or during a free period. Because the new on-site clinic is inside Muskego High School and offers virtually no waiting time, an office visit takes minutes instead of half a day of sick leave.

"Then we don't have to find subs," said Julie Kelly, assistant superintendent for business operations and human resources.

Whether savings will make the clinic break even depends on how much the 1,390 people eligible to use the clinic actually do, she said.

"We're paying a fixed amount," she said.

Better than even

However, the on-site clinic is expected to do better than break even. In three years, it's expected to save the district $2 for every $1 it takes to operate the clinic, according to a projection by Healthstat Inc. that is operating the clinic. Healthstat operates freestanding health clinics for businesses, schools and government entities all over the country. Locally, it operates an employee clinic for Waukesha County, city and schools. It also will operate an employee on-site clinic that will open in the West Allis-West Milwaukee School District in January.

Savings from switching health insurance carriers paid the clinic's startup cost, Kelly said. As of September 2015, the district has been self-funded for health insurance, although an insurance company administers the health plan.

The school board whole-heartedly backs the on-site clinic.

"Providing a lower cost solution to employees to get quality care, in the long run will save us quite a bit," said Rick Petfalski, school board president.

In the board's view, it's a safe bet that the clinic will pay for itself, he said.

"Either way, people in the plan will get health care at a cost. They will go to their regular medical provider like a doctor or they'll go to the clinic. And the clinic is by far less expensive," Petfalski said. That holds true for both the employees and for the district, he said.

Avoid ER

School officials want to get out from under paying high fees when employees go to emergency rooms or urgent care facilities for health issues that can be taken care of in an office visit, Kelly said.

The onsite clinic is not only free, but is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday for a combined total of 20 hours that include one evening. It can handle acute and urgent care and there also is an average wait of 5 minutes, she said.

The clinic is staffed by a physicians assistant who is supervised by a medical doctor offsite.

"Physician assistants can do 80 percent of what doctors do," Kelly said. They can both diagnose and treat, she said. Anything that would bring people to their doctor's office can be taken care of at the clinic, she said. The only thing the clinic doesn't have is X-ray equipment, often found in doctors offices. Imaging would have to be done off-site.

A medical assistant draws blood, obtains other samples for lab tests and runs the office.

Lab results and other information will be shared with patients' family doctors only with patients' permission, Kelly said.

The clinic also dispenses commonly used non-narcotic prescription drugs at no cost.

Wellness key

Wellness, also a major thrust of the clinic, is seen as offering another avenue for saving money for the district. The wellness component could head off health crises such as heart attacks and it promotes healthier lifestyles so medical help is needed less often, Kelly said.

To facilitate wellness planning, employees and spouses complete a health risk assessment survey annually. Then they receive recommendations on how to improve their health, she said.

The clinic also offers blood pressure screenings, flu shots, disease management for chronic conditions such as diabetes, and weight loss, Kelly said.

The clinic also extends health care to part-time district employees who are eligible for the district health plan. They can use the clinic for $20.

Other school districts are interested in following Muskego-Norway's lead. The Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials has invited Kelly to explain the clinic to school business managers around the state.

"We're excited to share our story," she said.

And if the city of Muskego or even other school districts or businesses want to join the clinic, that would be possible, she said. While she spoke with them as the clinic idea developed, "It's such a new concept, there was some interest but they were not ready to move forward."

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