The Feather River Tribal Health Centers recently received a $123,000 grant from Health Net to expand their telehealth services and continue serving patients during the pandemic. 

The three Feather River centers – two in Oroville and a center in Yuba City – serve about 8,000 patients per year, many of whom are part of the state’s vulnerable and low-income populations disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. 

Feather River offers comprehensive services to patients with options such as dental care, acupuncture, behavioral therapy and family medicine. The centers are free to those who don’t qualify for free insurance like medical or medicare or who don’t have private insurance. 

Founded in 1993, the centers are a joint powers agency of Native Americans from the Berry Creek, Enterprise Rancheria and Mooretown Rancherias. According to a press release, Feather River is one of 38 Native American tribal healthcare programs in the state. 

Maria Hunzeker, CEO of the Feather River Tribal Health Centers, said the centers aim to remove barriers to healthcare for their patients – about 60 percent of whom are Native American – by offering as many in-house services as possible. 

“We try to have as much under our roof as we can,” Hunzeker said. “It allows us to be able to provide the direct services to the patients without them worrying about a referral.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the barriers for healthcare access for Native Americans across the country, as well as locally where the centers have temporarily stopped their program to pick up Native American clients for their appointments, because of safety concerns. The centers have also stopped sending community health representatives for in-person visitations. 

The grant will allow Feather River to expand its video conferencing capacities, providing opportunities for patients to video conference with behavioral and physical health professionals. Hunzeker said she hopes the grant helps the center reach more people who don’t have access to transportation for appointments, or are afraid of contracting the virus.

“We’re using it (the grant) to have new infrastructure installed and upgrade the internet system,”  Hunzeker said. “It will allow us to have better facetime appointments with our patients.” 

She said she’s also hopeful the grant will allow the centers to continue sharing messaging about their drive-thru COVID-19 testing facilities. She said they’ve tested at least 250 people across their three locations using three types of tests, two of which produce results within 15 minutes. 

While the grant will allow the centers to update their connectivity services, Hunzeker said there are concerns about reaching patients who live in rural areas with limited to no internet access.

“We can upgrade our systems but if our patients, living in rural areas in the foothills, there are a lot of areas where they don’t have good internet access or good wifi – that’s probably one of the biggest complaints is the consistency of connection during their visits,” Hunzeker said. “It’s very difficult to maintain focus in your medical visit, so that is a very big frustration for the patients.” 

She said that the centers will soon start looking for resources to improve patient internet access in their homes. 

“That’s something we’re going to be exploring,” Hunzeker said. “We’ve got the infrastructure fixed here, now how do we help the patients access it.”

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