This article was originally published by Baton Rouge’s “The Advocate”.

By Timothy Boone | Business Editor

Since starting in 1999, Baton Rouge-based Premier Health has grown to be nationwide operator of urgent care clinics, treating about 1 million patients annually.

The company’s model is based on joint-venture partnerships with well-respected local health care systems, such as Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center and LCMC Health. The company offers a range of services from choosing sites for after hours clinics, to recruiting doctors and staff for the clinics, IT, billing insurance companies and collecting payments from patients. Premier Health will soon have 85 clinics in 13 states stretching from Oregon to Florida. In Louisiana, the company operates 46 urgent care and occupational medicine clinics.

Dr. Kevin DiBenedetto, who co-founded the company, said Premier prides itself on remaining physician-led. DiBenedetto said he still works shifts in the urgent care clinics, as a way of continuing to take care of patients and keep an eye on what’s going on at the business.

DiBenedetto and CEO Steve Sellars recently discussed the history and the future of Premier Health. Their comments have been edited for clarity.

When you started out 23 years ago, what was the market like for urgent care? How willing were people to go to an urgent care clinic?

Sellars: When we started, there was no other businesses in Baton Rouge or the surrounding area that called themselves urgent care. So it was a new concept. I think people caught on pretty quick, but initially we had to do a lot of marketing to educate the public about what exactly we did and what we did not do, which we still do through this date. Because we were with Our Lady of the Lake, it was a little bit easier to market it and especially to their network of doctors that we could also get a referral stream from that group of physicians.

DiBenedetto: My partner and I, Dr. Graham Tujague, we were ER physicians at the Lake. The Lake approached me about the urgent care concept. We met for almost a year before we had the finished product. It started because we had too many low acuity patients coming to the emergency room, especially in the afternoon hours. People coming home from work, people getting off from school. So that’s where the concept of after hours came about. The type of patients we were trying to go after, those patients were having to wait three to five hours at that time to be seen for something lower acuity. They were either going somewhere else or not being treated. And thus the reason to do that and take a load off of the emergency room and try to handle some of the lower acuity patients in a different outpatient setting.

Sellars: I think over the years, we have made it just easier for people to access care. We’re open seven days a week. We have extended evening hours, weekend hours, we take care of a lot of conditions.

DiBenedetto: Plus we’re open every holiday. I remember some of our busiest days in the early years was Christmas Eve. People couldn’t believe we were open, we were inundated with patients coming in.

How much has the business changed over 23 years, in terms of what people are coming in about?

DiBenedetto: We’re still relieving the emergency room of some of the lesser acuity patients, but we’re also now more of a front door for the hospital system. We see a lot of patients that either do not have a primary care doctor or didn’t go in to see them. So now part of our focus is just getting the patient appropriately treated and appropriately followed up. I think it’s very big having hospital partners. One, it holds us to a higher standard. And it makes that transition to our hospital partners, physicians and physician network a lot easier.

We pride ourselves on being very transitional. The pandemic was a very good example of that. Urgent care came up front and center. Everybody was closing down and we were still frontline seeing patients, and we created curbside triage and treatment. We now we have drive-through centers. We were already doing virtual care before the pandemic and we expanded upon it.

What are some of the other changes that have kind of come about as a result of COVID?

Sellars: When you think about hospitals their low acuity ER volume hasn’t quite rebounded to pre-COVID levels. So I think we have a more informed consumer.

DiBenedetto: Before COVID patients traditionally walked in, signed in, sat in the waiting room, got called to the back, got triaged. With COVID, they electronically signed in from their home or their car, and you can triage them while they’re sitting in their car. That’s a big change that I think is for the better and it’s more convenient for the patient.

Finding labor has been an issue for a lot of health care businesses. What is Premier Health doing to overcome this?

DiBenedetto: So labor’s a huge issue. Nurse techs, medical assistants, even some of your nurses, a lot have abandoned the health field. When we ask our hospital partners about it they agree that they’re having those same problems that we’re having recruiting people to work in our urgent care centers. We like to try to maintain a high standard of employee. We want long-term employees. We don’t wanna just throw a warm body in there and temporarily help.

What we’ve been focusing on, is how to retain employees and them give them a chance to advance in our company. We’ve even talked with schools about sending some of our employees back to school to advance their education or their role in the company. We promoted within for years now. Some of our employees have been with us for extremely long time — 10, 15, 20 years because of that. We’ve tried to encourage that concept throughout the company.

What’s the future for Premier Health? Where do you see things going in the next few years?

Sellars: I think it’s an exciting time for us and our model, our health system, joint venture partnership model. I think we will continue to see patients more actively involved in their care. I think we will continue to see more technology in health care. We’re growing our model around the country. Our model is a health system, joint venture partnership model. So our centers are all co-owned by our health system partners. That provides an important linkage to all of their clinical resources. From a technology standpoint, being on a common electronic medical records system with our partners, it reduces fragmentation and care that has occurred in years past. It reduces duplication of testing and things like that. We’re continuing to grow with our existing partners as well as our we’re working with a number of new health systems or in different parts of the country.

You see a lot of companies like Amazon trying to get into health care, Walmart expanding their health care services. What gives Premier a leg up on this competition?

Sellars: Health care is local in our view. We’re affiliated with leading and trusted health systems and everything that goes with that — all the clinical resources and expertise and goodwill.

DiBenedetto: We’ve always said it’s never as easy as it looks. It’s part of the reason hospitals started doing joint ventures with us. Because a lot of them have not done well with trying to do their own urgent care system. Our bottom line is we want to practice very high degree of medical care that is at a convenience and at a good cost. We’ve stuck by that motto forever. I think that’s what helps us with our expansion and transition.

We have no doubt that with our unstoppable team, we will continue to grow and “Make a Difference” by providing many more communities across the country with access to healthcare. Click here to read the original interview.