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Charles Baker and Heidi Powell review a patient record at the newly established but familiar
Baker Center for Primary Care.
Photos by Matthew Hundley

Originally published: 2012-11-15 12:11:57
Last modified: 2012-11-15 12:11:57

Baker Center aims to improve health access in Avery

Matthew Hundley / (

The opening of the Baker Center for Primary Care at the beginning of November marks a step toward addressing a confirmed shortfall in clinical care for Avery citizens, according the center’s medical director and namesake, Charles Baker.

The Avery Journal-Times reported in August on a multi-organizational effort to improve access to clinical care in Avery County, after a county-by-county health rating study by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and University of Wisconsin ranked Avery County in last place in the category of clinical care. While Roger Wise, of Avery County Board of Health, described several factors contributing to the low ranking, the high ratio of patients to doctors ranked as the most pronounced and readily correctable. 

By establishing the new clinic, Baker and the rest of the clinic staff have set the stage to improve that measure of clinical care by bringing in more doctors, as Baker explained. 

“We have had a really hard time recruiting new doctors to this area for a lot of reasons,” Baker said. “When you are already short staffed, trying to get somebody in new, they will have to work a bit harder than they would in some other places. We also have not been able to provide enough funding to bring more doctors in. By turning this clinic into a nonprofit clinic, then we qualify for extra funding to help recruit new doctors. It is actually already working. We have one part-time doctor, who just started with us last week, and we have another doctor who we think will be able to join us this winter, so it is already paying off.”

According to Baker, the transition to a nonprofit clinic, as opposed to the private practice he has operated in Avery County for years, was necessary to qualify for federal aid that makes hiring additional personnel possible. 

“By getting the designation as a rural health clinic, we can get more funding from federal reimbursement, Medicare and Medicaid. We do not have that designation yet, but we are anticipating that in the next year,” Baker said, noting that he expects to be able to add more patients and provide quicker appointments by March 2013. “It will be hard for the next couple of months for us to be able to take new patients, but by this coming winter or March, we will be able to take more patients because we will have another doctor coming in full time.”

According to Baker, the goal of the clinic is not just about being able to serve more of Avery County’s population; it is about ensuring consistency and continuity in their care.

“What I am really trying to do is to have a clinic here that is sustainable. For the last 30 years, every time a doctor has left, there has not been a way for their patients to readily keep going to the same clinic. They would have to scramble on short notice to get care or find another doctor. When you are already short on doctors, sometimes that can be impossible,” Baker said. “What I want is a clinic that is big enough that, if somebody leaves, their patients will still have a doctor they can go to.”

Baker noted that the Baker Center for Primary Care is only the first of many steps that will help improve the availability of healthcare for Avery citizens.

“There are two things that are happening that are going to improve access to care. One is my clinic getting more doctors. Whereas we have had two doctors and two nurse practitioners, we want to build up to where we have four doctors and four nurse practitioners. We think that will help a lot to provide access for people,” Baker said. “The other thing that is happening is the FQHC (Federally Qualified Health Clinic). It will be open to anybody, providing care on a very generous sliding scale.”

Baker explained that the FQHC would likely be located in Linville, near the hospital, and will be overseen by a board of directors from the community. 

Baker also ensured his long-term patients that they can expect the same quality of care that they have come to expect in Baker’s more than 30 years of service.

“Everybody you will interact with here is the same. All the front office and back office staff, all the providers; everybody has stayed with us for the new program,” Baker said. “It is the same thing you have had, except that eventually, we will have more doctors and providers.”

Baker also noted that, contrary to prevalent rumors, the opening of the clinic is not a sign of his imminent retirement. 

“I am not planning to retire any time soon,” said Baker. “I am on a five- to six-year-plan now. I am 65, soon to be 66, and still have energy and enthusiasm. I still like coming to work, so I am hoping that, if I can keep sufficient sense and marbles, then I will be here for another half a dozen years.”

According to Baker, the results of the recent presidential election ensure that the clinic will be greatly needed in the coming years. 

“After the election last week, the healthcare reform act is going to be a fact. We were not sure about that, but in two years, there are going to be a lot more people that have health insurance, either because they are qualifying for private insurance or qualifying for Medicaid. So, in 2014, there is going to be a lot better access to healthcare. When that happens, we really are going to need more doctors. People who have been denying themselves healthcare are going to come in to get the care they need,” Baker said.