Health CareNews & Opinion

StarMed Shifts Gears to Affordable Health Care Coverage, Urban Farming

Company refocuses on affordable health care, urban farming

A doctor takes a patient's blood pressure
With StarMed’s StarPass, uninsured patients will have access to affordable health care. (Courtesy of StarMed)

StarMed Healthcare has played a significant role locally in high-volume COVID-19 testing and vaccinations during the biggest local spikes of the pandemic, but with demand for those services dropping, the team at StarMed is refocusing on its foundation of care.

According to StarMed founder and president Michael Estramonte, part of that effort includes reshifting the focus to existing programs — namely its StarPass membership program — and launching new ones such as urban farming. The health-care provider is creating a garden next to its west Charlotte clinic, complete with a greenhouse and chicken coop, to grow free food for patients.

A planting of root vegetables is already in the ground and will be ready for harvest in the spring. 

The food will be distributed from another building StarMed is turning into a pharmacy next year. Patients who qualify based on their health condition and income will be able to pick up free fresh vegetables there to help them feel better.

Estramonte said the pilot program aims to show patients the importance of healthy eating and how the nutrients in various foods have healing properties.

“If somebody comes in with gout — beets are absolutely phenomenal to reduce uric acid crystal formation — they’ll be able to go there and get their allopurinol, which is the medication, but at the same time, they’ll get a bag of groceries, carrots, beets, turnips, things that actually will help treat that,” Estramonte said.

“It’ll be cool, you’ll be able to get a prescription for your diabetes plus a prescription for food.”

An insurance alternative

There’s so much to consider when signing up for health-care coverage, like what’s the monthly cost and deductible, what’s actually covered and how do I find providers in my network? Even with those answers, one looming question remains: How can I possibly afford this?

StarMed Healthcare aimed to address those unknowns and ease the burden of rising health-care costs with the StarPass, a little-known affordable option for uninsured or underinsured patients

StarPass is not health insurance; it’s a primary care membership starting at $49 per month that covers patients for a certain number of visits to a StarMed clinic — like joining a gym but for medical care. Members also get a discount on services and in-office medications.

Patients who enroll by Dec. 31 will get their $90 enrollment fee waived.

Since StarPass is not insurance, there is no deductible or out-of-pocket maximum. That also means StarPass does not cover appointments with specialists (dermatologists, ophthalmologists, cardiologists, etc.), hospital stays or emergency room visits.

“It’s not an insurance plan, obviously, it’s just a way to make it affordable,” Estramonte said. “Sometimes people have insurance, but their copay or their deductibles are so high, it actually makes more sense to be able to utilize this program. So it’s not just for the uninsured, it’s for the underinsured.”

StarPass has evolved since it was first launched in 2018. The program now includes family benefits and a behavioral health component that gives patients access to licensed behavioral health providers who can help with trauma, manage anxiety and depression, and help establish internal healing.

“So many things are tied to behavioral health,” Estramonte told Queen City Nerve. “You can take care of a person’s diabetes, blood pressure, you can take care of their gout, but if they come in and they’re dealing with food insecurity, or they have some sort of domestic issue going on at home, if you don’t have that person on staff and have it accessible for all people, people without insurance … I mean, that’s what we’re here for.”

Sessions are 45 minutes and are offered in person and virtually via Telehealth.

For existing StarPass members, a behavioral health add-on costs an additional $50 a month for 12 visits a year; $125 a month for 24 visits a year; or $225 a month for 48 visits a year. Monthly rates are higher for non-StarPass members.

Meeting the need

StarMed is an independently owned urgent care center and family medicine practice that opened its first clinic on Central Avenue across from the former Eastland Mall site in east Charlotte in 2017, and has since expanded to a second location on Tuckaseegee Road in west Charlotte. 

Estramonte said the StarPass program was created in 2018 after an internal analysis revealed StarMed clinics, which are strategically placed in traditionally marginalized communities, were seeing more uninsured patients than originally anticipated. 

StarMed initially estimated its payer mix would be 15% to 20% uninsured, but it turned out to be closer to 30%. Estramonte said StarPass was borne as an affordable health-care option for those patients.

“The best thing we could come up with was a way to incentivize continuity of care and do it in a way that somebody can put it in their budget and know what their fixed costs are,” Estramonte said.

StarPass plans come in four options: basic, premium, family and business.

The basic plan costs $49 per month and patients get four in-office or virtual visits per year. For those who visit the doctor more regularly or have additional health concerns, the premium plan costs $75 per month and allows eight visits per year, plus a free flu shot.

The family plan costs $99 each month for the first person and $15 per month for each additional person, up to four people. It includes 12 visits to StarMed per year and a free flu shot for each family member.

There’s also a business plan for $55 a month per employee, which gets them six visits per year and a free flu shot. Employees can also upgrade to the family plan for just $15 per month more and have their entire family covered.

All StarPass members get a 20% discount on services, including labs, X-rays, POC testing (ex. pregnancy, glucose, strep) and in-office medications.

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