A decision by Lamoille County’s community health care organization to change how it has patient blood samples analyzed will save patients money. It will also lose money for Lamoille County’s only hospital.

Lamoille Health Partners — until recently, known as Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley — has begun outsourcing much of its lab work to Quest Diagnostics, a huge clinical laboratory that partners with health clinics and hospitals across the nation and other countries.

Lamoille Health Partners is the area’s federally qualified health center, one of nearly 1,400 community health care organizations across the country that provide primary and preventive care for people — often in rural areas or with limited income — regardless of ability to pay or insurance status.

According to president and CEO Stuart May, the organization has always had a couple of lab vendors, and one of them is Copley, which is located in Morrisville directly across Washington Avenue from Lamoille Health Partner’s main primary care location, Morrisville Family Practice. That was convenient for many patients, but May said it’s even more convenient to be able to offer blood work in one of Lamoille Health Partner’s clinics, especially if the patient is over at Stowe Family Practice.

“This is a project we had ready at the end of 2019 before COVID came and derailed everything,” May said.

The new headquarters at 609 Washington Avenue, built in 2018 to house Morrisville Family Practice — along with the organization’s administrative offices and other spaces — was designed to include space to eventually perform lab work. Lamoille Health Partners still doesn’t have a full-fledged lab, but it does have the ability to take blood samples from patients.

May said it’s part of the integrated services that federally qualified health centers offer — a physician that could recommend a dentist or call up a mental health expert from within the organization during a routine checkup.

Now that doctor can summon a nurse to take a blood sample immediately, instead of making an appointment at Copley for lab work.

The news that Lamoille Health was going to start sending its lab work to Quest — May said samples are sent to a lab in Massachusetts, just over the Vermont state line — didn’t sit well with Copley administration.

A Jan. 23 memo to hospital staff and providers from the hospital’s operations and human resources departments bemoaned the move. The memo said the long-running contract for lab services with Lamoille Health Partners represents over $2 million in annual revenue for Copley — although that figure was walked back to $1.3 million after a follow-up question from the Stowe Reporter.

The memo said the loss of that revenue would result in “a close scrutiny of expenses.”

“We now find ourselves facing a significant financial challenge with very little notice,” the memo said, urging Copley employees who use Lamoille Health Partners as their primary care provider to request their lab work be done across the street — and to urge their friends and family to do the same.

In a statement Tuesday, Copley’s vice president for development and marketing, Trish Rick, said the hospital had been working with Lamoille Health “on a range of issues,” including lab work.

“Even though we knew Lamoille Health Partners was evaluating this option, we were caught a bit by surprise by the announcement they were going ahead with moving their lab services out of state,” Rick said. “Until we heard that announcement, we thought our conversations with them were going well.”

Rick said the hospital hopes to continue the relationship, “not only to keep those services here in Vermont and to protect Vermont jobs, but because we are partners in health care to people throughout central Vermont.”

“We’re right here and we'd like to continue providing lab services to Lamoille Health Partners’ patients, who also happen to be our patients,” Rick said. “It just makes sense.”

Rick also said they’ve determined Copley’s lab costs were less than Quest’s on all but one test and Copley has agreed to match all of Quest’s prices.

Not a problem, May said. Patients can still request lab work at Copley, if they want, and Copley will still get the revenue from that. And it probably makes sense for Copley employees to have their lab work done where they work, he said.

He said there is a sizable segment of the population in rural Vermont for whom a few hundred dollars out of pocket, even just for annual primary care visits, bumps up against the ability to pay for groceries or the electric bill.

“That $400, for the year, or something like that, is a true decision maker,” he said.

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