KIRKLAND, Wash. -- Little on the outside of a Vera Whole Health clinic near Totem Lake Mall suggests the innovation Kirkland city leaders say is happening inside.
"In America, there's a lot of waste in our health care system," said Dr. Karl Weyrauch, who leads the facility, "What we have in the rest of American health care is sick care. In Vera, we have a focus on keeping people healthy."
What makes this particular facility different are the people Dr. Weyrauch sees. Almost all of them are employees with the city of Kirkland. This is their clinic.
"They have longer visits than other kinds of clinics," said Dr. Weyrauch, "And they don't have any out-of-pocket expenses."
The city of Kirkland opened its own health clinic, with Vera, a little more than a year ago. It was a decision motivated by rising health costs, an increasing number of claims and the prospect of paying huge penalties through the Affordable Care Act.
"We were what you would characterize as a Cadillac tax plan," said Kirkland human resources director Jim Lopez, "We literally went from the old way to the new way."
Lopez helped craft "Healthy Kirkland", which moved the city and its employees into a high deductible plan, but with a large contribution to a health savings program. It also created the primary care clinic which is free to all employees and their families.
"We can give out free medicine to the patients without any charge to them up front," said Dr. Weyrauch, "The system still generates revenue for the city."
Essentially, regular doctor visits cost nothing and last longer, encouraging patients to live healthier lives as a way to cut costs in the long run. Some procedures cost more, but if workers visit the doctor once a year, they qualify for a rebate that can diminish those expenses. There is also the health savings plan that can help in that area as well.
Union leaders said the transition has been mostly positive, with the only complaints involving paperwork. Some quirks are still being worked out.
"It's not just dressing up something," said Lopez, "It is literally a completely new way of doing things."
Lopez said the switch has cut health spending by 4.5%, even though more than 70% of the staff used the clinic. Nine hundred people are enrolled.
He believes this model could work elsewhere, and be a blueprint for other governments to save money on health care.
"Don't think that because health care is a national problem, there aren't solutions at the local level," he said.