NEWS

State OKs rules for MinuteClinics

Julie Jette

Regulations are now in place that will enable CVS to launch in-store medical clinics throughout the state.

The state Public Health Commission on Wednesday approved a rules to govern "limited-service clinics" like the ones proposed by CVS and its subsidiary MinuteClinic.

First proposed for a CVS on Washington Street (Route 53) in Weymouth, CVS hopes to quickly open 20 to 30 clinics in Greater Boston that will treat common maladies such as ear and sinus infections and strep throat and provide vaccines.

"This is really about providing access to health care services that will make it easier for people to live their lives," said Michael Howe, the CEO of MinuteClinic.

While the Weymouth store was the only one for which CVS had filed a formal application, Howe said the company will likely apply for licenses for a number of locations under the new regulations. While Weymouth will probably be among the first stores to open, he said he didn't know if it would be the first.

Howe said the clinics could begin opening as early as the summer. He added that the company hopes to have payment arrangements in place with most of the state's health insurers by then.

While it was CVS's application that caused the push for new regulations, the rules may open the doors to other organizations.

Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach said he knew of at least one community health center that had been interested in opening up a limited-service clinic a few years ago. It abandoned the effort because of the time and cost that would have been involved.

"This new regulation is simplified, straightforward, and easier for any applicant, and we do hope that makes things easier for community health centers and hospitals," Auerbach said.

The new regulations place the Department of Public Health's medical director, Dr. Lauren Smith, in charge of overseeing the clinics. Auerbach said clinics will also be expected to report data on the quality of care provided to the department, which will review and report on the data.

When CVS first proposed the Weymouth clinic in May, it applied to the state for variations from current rules governing full-service medical clinics.

Soon after, doctors' groups, led by the Massachusetts Medical Society, filed objections to granting a waiver from the rules and insisting that the state develop separate regulations to govern the clinics.

The clinics will be staffed with nurse practitioners - registered nurses with advanced training who are authorized to diagnose illnesses and prescribe treatment. Many nurse practitioners already work alongside doctors in primary care practices and elsewhere.

Massachusetts, like the nation as a whole, faces a shortage of primary-care doctors, and relatively few practices have weekend or evening hours, forcing many patients with urgent but simple conditions to visit the emergency room.

But doctors' groups raised concerns that serious illnesses could be missed if patients visit limited-service clinics frequently rather than visiting their own doctor, who might notice a pattern.

They also raised concerns about privacy, handicapped access, sanitation and infection control and whether nurse practitioners who treated patients would be qualified to treat both children and adults.

Massachusetts Medical Society spokesman Rick Gulla said that the organization was pleased with the new regulations although it still has reservations about the clinics.

"We think that (the public health council) addressed directly the major concerns that we had," he said.

Julie Jette may be reached at jjette@ledger.com.

The Patriot Ledger