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Lifetime Health closing three centers here, affecting 43,000 patients

Lifetime Health Medical Group, citing physician recruitment problems that led to poor financial performance, will close its three health centers in Western New York at the end of the year.

The company this week mailed notifications to about 43,000 patients who have used the health centers in Amherst, Hamburg and Buffalo for primary care and other services within the past three years, according to a statement from Lifetime Health.

With the closing, 202 staff positions will be eliminated, the company said.

The closures are part of a larger plan by Lifetime Health Medical Group to get out of the primary care business, with a proposal pending before state officials to transfer ownership of its six health centers in the Rochester area to other medical organizations.

"With the continued shortage of primary care physicians in Western New York, Lifetime Health has struggled to successfully fill physician gaps within its practices, resulting in patient access issues and contributing to challenges in maintaining our financial performance," company officials said in a brief statement.

"Recognizing any further physician departures would jeopardize the group’s ability to meet the demand for patient care, Lifetime Health requested and received approval from the New York State Department of Health to close the centers," officials said.

Lifetime Health Medical Group examined a variety of alternatives to maintain its three health centers in Erie County, such as an ownership transfer to another group, but could not find a partner, said Stacy VanBlarcom, a spokeswoman for the company.

Lifetime Health Medical Group is an affiliate of Lifetime Healthcare Companies, which also operates health insurers Univera Healthcare and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, which is based in Rochester. It opened its first health center in 1973 in Rochester and, in this region, in 1978 in Buffalo.  It also operated a health center in West Seneca until 2015.

The existing facilities – Amherst Health Center at 1185 Sweet Home Road, Hamburg Health Center at 151 Elmview Ave., and William E. Mosher Health Center at 899 Main St. – will close Dec. 31. The pharmacies at the locations will close by Oct. 25, and patient prescriptions will be transferred to Rite Aid Pharmacy.

VanBlarcom said patients were sent a list of alternative doctors and information about how to transfer their records, information that is also on the organization's website. Lifetime Health expects many of its doctors and other health care providers will establish practices in the community and will be available to continue to care for their patients at new locations, she said.

The company operates six health centers in the Rochester area, and there is a plan under review by the state Health Department to transfer ownership of three of them to University of Rochester Medical Center's UR Medicine Primary Care network and three others to Rochester Regional Health, which includes Rochester General and Unity Health systems. Lifetime Health could not offer more detailed information about the decision while it is awaiting approval of the change by the state, VanBlarcom said.

For more information, Lifetime Health recommended that patients visit its website or call their health center.

Physician shortages, especially in primary care, have become a problem throughout the United States, as fewer medical students go into the field and older doctors retire. Primary care includes internal and family medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics-gynecology.

There were about 1,500 primary care doctors in 2015 in Western New York, about 70 percent of them in family or internal medicine, according to the University of Albany Center for Health Workforce Studies. This region had 72.2 family and internal medicine doctors per 100,000 population compared to a statewide average of 85.5.

"It's very concerning because it's already very difficult to find a primary care doctor in this area," said Dr. Nancy H. Nielsen, senior associate dean for health policy at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "We and everyone else needs more of them, but newly minted doctors are going into other specialties for many reasons."

However, she and others said that Lifetime Health is closing its facilities at a time when other primary care organizations have undergone or are planning expansions of services in the Buffalo area, including Jericho Road Community Health Center, Neighborhood Health Center and the Greater Buffalo United Accountable Healthcare Network.

"It's sad to lose an organization with significant patient penetration in the community," said Dr. Gale Burstein, Erie County health commissioner. "But others, with potentially more sustainable reimbursement, are expanding their clinical services."

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