LAND O'LAKES — Rhonda Fowler has no complaints about her family's medical care.
But the Pasco County school district's three new employee health centers — the first of which opens this week — have her intrigued.
The centers will offer doctor visits, a range of widely-used generic drugs, several types of medical tests and wellness counseling for free to anyone on the district's health benefits plan. District officials are psyched about the initiative because they expect to save $3 million or more annually in medical expenses.
The bottom line has caught Fowler's attention, too.
"I just like the convenience and no cost," said Fowler, a secretary in the district's special education department.
She could use the center at Land O'Lakes High for herself, or the one at Gulf High for her three children. Between copays and prescriptions alone, she figured on saving maybe $400 a year. Having gone three years without a raise, that's big money.
"I believe I will be using this," Fowler said.
District benefits manager Mary Tillman hopes large numbers of employees choose the system, which will be managed by Tennessee-based CareHere.
The more people who use the services, the less the district spends on billing and insurance, she said.
"There are going to be many wellness programs for people to go through, too," Tillman said. "This is where we're really going to save money. Their health will improve, and our claims will go down long term."
Citrus County schools have seen such results since opening a CareHere clinic in May.
A growing number of Citrus school employee prescriptions are being filled through the CareHere dispensary, with a corresponding decrease in medication insurance usage. And the clinic is so popular that the district is considering a second location to meet the demand.
"Our biggest complaint we have with it is that employees have to wait a few days to get in," risk management director Dave Stephens said.
Citrus projected to save about $1 million with this model. So far, Stephens said, the district is on track to meet that mark.
"The employees find it to be a real value for them," Stephens said. "And so far, the numbers are very good for us."
To drum up interest in Pasco, CareHere executives are spending several days talking about what covered employees, family members and retirees can get if they use the health centers.
The first thing that client operations director John Watson stressed Monday to a group of about 50 workers was the privacy of their medical records. He knew that might be a concern, particularly since the centers are operated on school grounds.
The district has spent about $600,000 to place stand-alone modular health centers on the campuses of Land O'Lakes High, Gulf High and Centennial Middle schools.
"The very fact that we're changing where the doctor is working … doesn't in any way change the way your medical records are treated," Watson told the employees.
He talked about how the doctors and other medical staff will schedule just one patient per 20-minute time slot, to reduce waiting times and minimize outside demands during an individual appointment. Patients can book more than one slot if needed.
He noted that patients use the services with no copay, no deductible and no coinsurance. He also played up the wellness angle that Tillman spoke of, encouraging employees to take advantage of the center's health risk assessment testing, calling it the "foundation of service."
Each patient gives a blood sample for testing, with a doctor appointment to follow in which they review the results and discuss a treatment plan. That way, Watson said, they can catch little things before they become life threatening.
Watson also made clear what the centers will not be. They're not an emergency room or walk-in clinic, specialists, pediatricians or pharmacies.
Rather, the centers are supplemental health services for a targeted employee base, with prevention as a cornerstone and savings as a lure.
Fowler liked what she heard, and planned to tell colleagues. So did Denise Janes, a secretary in the superintendent's office.
"I love my primary," Janes said. "But I love that I can do it right here at work and with no copays. I have a pile of meds. I'm hoping it will save me a lot a month."
The district will have its ribbon cutting on the Land O'Lakes High center on Wednesday, with appointments beginning Feb. 7. Appointments are scheduled to start at the Gulf High site on Feb. 28, and at the Centennial Middle site on March 14.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.