A new medical office in Newaygo could become the start of a far broader expansion across Michigan and perhaps nationally for Christian Healthcare Centers Inc.
The Plainfield Township-based primary care provider is in the early stages of exploring opening a medical office in Hudsonville or Zeeland within a year and a half. The organization is also interested in a Holland office, and has talked to groups in Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Lansing and Detroit about potential locations, said co-founder, President and CEO Mark Blocher.
“So we could be dotted all over this area in the next five to seven years,” Blocher said.
Groups in nine other states — including in California, Florida, Illinois, Rhode Island and Tennessee — have also reached out to learn more about Christian Healthcare Centers, Blocher said.
Driven by his faith and a belief that “modern medicine has become about the payment, not the patient,” Blocher envisions Christian Healthcare Centers having “many” locations across Michigan “and ultimately beyond that.”
“We are really focused on addressing new locations in West Michigan, and if this works out we hope to add more around the state and beyond,” Blocher said. “We have not had a lack of interest around Michigan and around the country.”
Incubating an idea
A former professor at Cornerstone University, Blocher started the nonprofit Christian Healthcare Centers in 2015 with two partners: Medical Director Dr. Jeffery Woo, an internist who previously worked at Grand Valley Medical Specialists, and Director of Operations Brian Aenis. The company was formed as a medical ministry to improve access to care in underserved markets.
Christian Healthcare Centers does not participate with health insurance and instead uses a membership model to offer access to primary care and some specialty medical services. Members pay additional costs if they are referred for a diagnostic test such as an MRI or a procedure not offered at Christian Healthcare Centers, which has arrangements with other facilities to provide care at discounted rates.
“This is something that’s been on my mind for quite a while,” said Blocher, who was a co-founder of Exalta Health, a medical clinic in Grand Rapids’ Burton Heights neighborhood that serves the uninsured and underserved.
“We just started incubating this idea of: How do we change how health care is delivered?” he said. “We’re trying to follow the model of the Good Samaritan, the compassionate stranger who takes care of other strangers.”
Incorporated in 2015, Christian Healthcare Centers opened its first office off of East Beltline Avenue, near Five Mile Road, in 2017. The East Beltline office serves about 2,500 active members who pay a monthly membership fee. The office has been adding 40 to 60 new members a month, Blocher said.
Adults pay $85 a month, or $75 for senior citizens and $35 for college students, for unlimited primary care visits and medical services such as X-rays and blood draws, plus some medical specialties. Children 2 to 18 years old cost $15, and children under 2 years old cost $30. Patient visits run for 30, 60 or 90 minutes.
The opportunity to develop a second office came two years ago when the city of Newaygo and the River Country Chamber of Commerce reached out to address a shortage of physicians locally that limits access to primary care, according to Scott Faulkner, the city’s former economic development director.
The availability of primary care doctors in Newaygo is “six-fold out of whack” compared to the one physician for every 500 patients ratio that Christian Healthcare Centers maintains, Faulkner said.
“There’s a huge gap in the data that basically says that we are very short on primary care physicians. We simply don’t even have close to enough based on our population,” said Faulkner, who in April departed his position with the city and joined Christian Healthcare Centers as business development coordinator. “Knowing that and knowing that CHC is a primary care provider, it seemed like the perfect match. I just called them up and said, ‘We need to talk.’”
Christian Healthcare Centers worked with the city, the River Country Chamber of Commerce and The Right Place Inc. to secure philanthropic support as well as a site for the medical office, he said.
An underserved rural market with a shortage of doctors, Newaygo County has less than 42 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents, resulting in long wait times to see a doctor, according to a 2020 community health needs assessment performed by Spectrum Health Gerber Memorial Hospital in Fremont. That ratio compares to a statewide average of 79.4 physicians per 100,000 people.
Neighboring Lake County fares worse with an average of just 8.7 primary care physicians per 100,000 people.
More than 77 percent of the 562 residents and health care professionals and executives interviewed or surveyed in the assessment said they “believe access to health care is a critical problem for some community residents.”
The 2020 assessment also cited how Newaygo County’s rural nature “presents challenges with regard to recruiting health care providers to the area.” The findings are similar to a prior community needs assessment Spectrum Health Gerber conducted in 2018.
Gerber’s health needs assessment also identified cost of care as a barrier for some residents who have health insurance but are unable to afford copays and deductibles.
Filling a need
The Christian Healthcare Centers office “will expand access to care for our growing community” as well as “contribute to its economic development by creating a number of high paying jobs,” said Newaygo City Manager Jon Schneider.
Projected to open in May 2022, the 8,150-square-foot Newaygo office now under construction on West Wood Street will house primary care, X-ray, labs, medication dispensary and counseling. A subsidiary, Christian Healthcare Specialists, will offer medical specialties such as OB/GYN, in-office procedures and minor outpatient surgeries that do not require anesthesia. The office will become a testing ground for Christian Healthcare Centers’ expansion into specialty care and outpatient procedures, Blocher said.
CopperRock Construction Inc. in Grand Rapids serves as the general contractor for the $1.8 million Newaygo project.
Christian Healthcare Centers will lease the office and seeks to raise $1.3 million through a new capital campaign to buy medical equipment, furnishings, I.T. equipment and supplies. The organization has raised $400,000 so far through grants from the Fremont Area Community Foundation, Osteopathic Foundation of West Michigan, and Newaygo residents.
“So far, I’d say it’s going quite well. We shouldn’t have any trouble hitting our target,” Blocher said of the capital campaign. “We’re getting good response from the community.”
Amid a persistent shortage of physicians nationally, care providers often have difficulty recruiting in rural markets, Blocher said. Yet all of the physicians on staff approached Christian Healthcare Centers about a position, he said.
“We have more physicians wanting to work for us than we have locations to put them. We have not had any difficulty attracting high-quality people,” Blocher said. “We think there’s a tremendous number of Christian medical professionals who want an opportunity to practice medicine for all of the reasons they went to medical school. They’re not happy with our modern day production model that we have in health care and they want one that’s more attuned to the doctor-patient relationship.”