Just months after the groundbreaking of the $6-million facility on Niagara Street, Greater Buffalo United Accountable Healthcare Network CEO Dr. Raul Vazquez seems pleased with the success doctors, nurses, specialists and care coordinators are having at touching the lives of patients who otherwise might fall between the cracks, lost to addiction or disease.
The approximately 200 staff members employed at GBUAHN are proud of the new four-story building, eager to show off its labyrinth of corridors, call centers, consultation rooms and offices. This place has become not just a job opportunity, they say, but a source of pride on Buffalo’s West Side. And they’re eager to tell the stories of success and thanks they’ve seen and heard firsthand in treating the area’s Medicaid participants as a Lead Health Home.
Not one to sit still, Vazquez knows the progress made addressing healthcare for Buffalo’s urban populations is only just beginning. And largely through his own funding, he’s ready to think big.
“I would rather wear that hat than have somebody else wear it for me,” Vazquez, a Bronx native and University at Buffalo Medical School graduate, says.
Incorporated in 2009 as an Independent Physician Association, GBUAHN uses a value-based care model as a certified Health Home to bring services and support to Medicaid beneficiaries with chronic conditions or serious illnesses like HIV or addiction. Beyond being a job creator in the city, the facility is a pioneer model for building positive outcomes for patients. The center helps coordinate all aspects of a patient’s care, from medical to behavioral to nutrition and even transportation, when necessary.
A first-generation American, Vazquez quickly connects the challenges of Buffalo’s inner-city neighborhoods with the hardships he saw growing up in Puerto Rico, an island nation ravaged this fall by hurricanes that have left parts of it still without power. When Vazquez started his own practice 21 years ago, he brought his uncle Joe from Puerto Rico, through whom he learned much of his work ethic. It was Joe’s financial assistance that allowed Vazquez to initially expand his practice in the city.
Vazquez’s fearless vision is all over the 40,000-square foot building at 564 Niagara St., with a full gym, aerobic workout studio and training kitchen in the basement, flat screen monitors displaying the success stories of its patients near the elevators on every floor and a resplendent board room that invites progress, not just talk.
It was progress that Vazquez sought when he was practicing medicine on his own, frustrated with the red tape and insurance walls he would have to navigate to provide care for his patients. Lack of transportation, poor nutrition and daily habits, even an inability to find a safe place to walk – Vazquez says it wasn’t enough to send patients out of the office with a slip of paper when there were so many barriers in their health goals. The urban care practice he started in 1996 was effective, but simply didn’t touch enough people.
“When you see that you’re having an impact, it’s rewarding,” Vazquez says. “I love what I do. I couldn’t tell you that 10 years ago because it seemed to me no matter what I did, I still got bad outcomes.”
“We felt that, if I only touch a few people during those encounters, I can’t do much. But if I have a team working around massive amounts of people and we’re applying some of the same concepts, you can really have more of an impact,” Vazquez says.
GBUAHN staff speaks 14 languages, and many of the physicians and providers Vazquez hire speak three or four. “People want people that look like them to kind of manage them,” Vazquez says. “So we’ve got Arab translators, physicians who speak Spanish. Somalia, Congo, to have that connection is real important.”
Vazquez is practiced at selling GBUAN’s value-based healthcare model, where the network is graded on 30 different measures to quantify the health outcomes of its patients. By meeting a certain number of those measures, GBUAHN qualifies for state and federal assistance, which covers much of the cost. Vazquez wants to partner with insurance providers this year, and plans are already in the works, he says, for expansion into Upstate New York urban areas that also have significant minority populations.
But on a cold day in early December, it’s the personal stories that matter most to “Dr. V” and his wife, Toni. They fondly recall an encounter with a woman at Shea’s Performing Arts Center, who excitedly told them the ways in which GBUAHN cared for her family, unaware she was speaking with the CEO and Chief of Systems. Zumba, cooking classes and practical lifestyle changes have led to dramatic weight loss for patients Vazquez knows by name. Like a rock star, patients want to shake his hand when he moves about the four-floor building.
He may see fewer patients these days, but the reward is in seeing care recipients walk out of the facility with a plan for treatment and equally as important, a staff invested in their well being.
“You’re touching different people. It’s simple things that we do,” Vazquez says, before growing quiet. “I don’t know. We just listen to people. And sometimes you touch people who are having really hard times.”