Take the grand tour of the new First Responder Partnership Health Center designed to provide unprecedented healthcare for NJSPBA members
By Mitchell Krugel and Jennifer Bernstein
Photos by Jim Connolly
Entry into the dazzling new First Responder Partnership Health Center (FRPHC) in Hamilton Township leads immediately to the facility’s Behavioral Health station. A sign in the room reads “TAKE CARE OF YOU TOO.”
Confirmation of why NJSPBA members will find the FRPHC to be the nucleus for unparalleled healthcare options, treatment and service greets them as soon as they walk in the door. And a walk through this healthcare buffet only offers more cues and clues for first responders and their families to jump on a healthcare bandwagon unlike any other.
Beyond the imminently accessible and confidential mental healthcare members so much deserve, they will find on-site physical therapy and chiropractic care. There is also an area to get labs done, a procedures room, X-ray, a pharmacy and exam rooms that facilitate the no-waiting, get-well-soon approach members can’t get enough of. And won’t elsewhere.
Join us for this tour of the FRPHC that has doubled its patient load each week since its opening on March 14. Obviously, the facility is state of the art, and each tour stop will provide a look under the stones to see its unique virtues.
But artwork also adorns the facility that lets first responders why they should have a place like this. One of these wall-hangings shows a law enforcement officer standing over a sleeping child with the caption, “Why? Because I told my children there’s nothing in the dark to be afraid of. And I’m making sure it stays that way.” Another features an American flag waving over the saying, “A hero voluntarily walks into the dangers of the unknown.”
The FRPHC oozes a try-it-you’ll-like-it magnetism that will have PBA members flocking here. A hop, flip and sprint off I-295 adjacent to the Horizon Center complex and across the street from the NJ State Police Troop C headquarters, it will be well worth the drive or making use of its Telehealth option. But with it open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, as well as Saturday and Sunday hours, why not make the trip here?
“I understand the persona of first responders, that they have to keep that shield up because that’s what’s kind of expected,” stated Dr. Jason Torrente, the FRPHC medical director and a Navy veteran who was deployed with a Marine Corp unit in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “But this is a place where you let your guard down because we understand the stressors that officers have. And we are sensitive to that so they can use this place as an outlet for whatever medical needs they have.”
So come on in.
As you walk into the FRPHC, notice the sign with the most important message right here on the front entrance: “Healthy Minds and Bodies for All Who Protect And Serve.”
Words that are more than a slogan. The statement is a promise, a commitment from a team that understands the law enforcement way of life and feels your pain.
“We have a team that has worked with first responders for many years,” assured Judy Lagana, RN, BSN, MSM, the chief clinical officer for Integrity Health, which created the FRPHC. “We understand the type of crises and situations they’re in every day. We truly understand what they go through because we have seen it on a day-to-day basis.”
That team is led by Torrente and Integrity Health Chief Operating Officer Chris Valerian, who works EMS in Montclair and has been part of the NJ State Police Task Force One the past 20 years. Valerian started as an ER doctor and has worked in nearly every aspect of healthcare from the payer side to the investment side. He has worked on county task forces and rescue squads throughout the state.
He has been integral in setting the mission at the FRPHC to anticipate healthcare needs so they can all be addressed whenever somebody comes in. Knowing those specific needs will enable members to not let their healthcare be an afterthought.
“We hope the idea of dedicating a center to them will get them paying more attention to their health and wellbeing,” Valerian noted. “We want to provide a sense of confidentiality and that sense of, ‘Hey, these people really understand my situation.’ We have short wait times. We take walk-ins, so you can come in after shift change. Everything we do process-wise is geared toward that mindset.”
To reach that goal, the FHRPC staff went through training about how first responders handle situations – their mood, how they feel, how they act. The first daylong training took place before they opened the doors. Another day will take place in June.
“The objective was to be sensitive, to understand that the things they see are not normal,” explained Krista Sierra, the FRPHC nurse manager who has worked in EMS for 35 years. “And to not so much go out of their way for them but make them feel respected and honor their thoughts and how they feel.”
Before getting on with the tour, please note that early returns have been favorable. Integrity Health Chairman and President Doug Forrester reports that a patient who is married to an Ocean County Sheriff’s Department Local 379 member came in the second week of April and was so elated with the care that she took flyers with to pass out to every first responder she knew. Behavioral Health Specialist Lisa Fasanella shared that three patients she saw stayed to take advantage of additional care offerings.
So with all that said, let’s get on with the tour…
First stop, behavioral health. It’s here right off the entrance because the FRPHC makes behavioral health part of the norm for primary care.
The big comfy couch in Fasanella’s officer invites officers to relax and chill. Who doesn’t need that? Fasanella points out that the home décor here raises the comfort level.
“I’ve also learned, believe it or not, they don’t like me looking too professional. So, they’re not going to see me in a suit. You’re not going to see me with a badge. I’m literally in jeans, probably 80 percent of the time,” she revealed. “And I think that really lends to feeling more comfortable in disclosing something that they perceive as horrific. This is a non-judgmental room. There is no anxiety surrounding what you share.”
Fasanella ran a similar program for public workers in Collier County, Florida for 10 years, and she has been in behavioral health for 25 years. She worked with many corrections officers at the start of the work in Florida.
Corrections officers have been flocking to the FRPHC. The center opened on March 14, and the next day she had two officers in for counseling.
One-to-one counseling, individual outpatient therapy, couples therapy, family therapy – it’s all here. Fasanella even sees kids 14 and older. On the Horizon Direct plan, there’s no copay and no deductible. So no financial or scheduling barriers. All sessions are HIPAA compliant. Nothing is reported to employers.
“They can absolutely keep their gun on them,” Fasanella confirmed. “As long as we can work together in a therapeutic environment. I’m very transparent. Because they’re not going to reach their medical outcomes if their emotional wellness is not tended for.”
So you’re going to like this.
The FRPHC has its own physical therapy gym. If the job is getting to be too much of a pain, get your butt in here. Because they know what is causing that pain for law enforcement.
“Our focus is primarily on low back, neck, spine around everything it,” Physical Therapist Darshan Patel reports.
Patel is certified in the orthopedic specialty. And he has set up the gym with all the apparatus, modalities and equipment to work out that pain. If you have an acute injury from the job, they can ice it. As you work on gaining motion, flexibility and strength to return to work, the hot packs are going to be essential to keep painful body parts warm.
The PT room is also equipped with lockers for officers to store their firearms and any other
equipment they might be bringing from the job. So come in and get treatment without any stress of what to do with your stuff.
But the differentiator in PT comes down to personal attention. Some PT places move so quickly that a patient can get maybe 15 minutes of work directly from the therapist. At the FRPHC, the objective is to go one-on-one the entire session.
And to get you out of here.
“Our goal here is to ensure that we develop independence and autonomy as soon as possible,” Patel commented. “So we’re not here to try to linger, carry around visits and keep them coming. So that way they’re not having to be crutched to having to come here just to feel better.”
Moving through the physical therapy facility, we see a room devoted exclusively to chiropractic care.
Kosta Linardakis has 20 years of chiropractic experience, but he knows that’s nothing compared to the pain that comes with 20 years of wearing a duty belt. Having worked with many officers, Linardakis is no stranger to treating and recognizing their ailments.
“The No. 1 complaint is from sitting in the vehicle with the vest and the gun belt,” Linardakis confirmed. “Secondly, it’s the long hours that come from being seated for so long.”
One of his primary goals with chiropractic care is to accurately diagnose a condition before starting to work and treat patients. Linardakis took the job at the FRPHC because he was drawn to the collaborative efforts with physical therapy and primary care.
“The benefit is the patients getting better quicker,” he said. “We’re able to treat patients with more modalities in a lesser amount of time so we can achieve our treatment goals quicker.”
Step this way to patient check-in. Sure, there’s a waiting room, but there’s probably not going to be any waiting. Although, it’s cool if you do have a minute to sit and admire that big blue-line flag in the waiting room.
Through this door, you will see a row of exam rooms. They are each equipped with a place to store your firearm. Again, there are so many so there’s no waiting.
The clinical team works here. A doctor, medical assistant, X-ray tech and front-desk assistant, all under Sierra’s supervision. Supervising day-to-day operations, she sees what is making the FRPHC so functional and so attractive to members and their families.
“I think it’s the one-stop shop,” Sierra submitted. “They can come in, and they can get it done. A lot of them are actually really surprised when they come in. They’re like, ‘I can get that done here?’ I tell them, “Yes, you can get it done here. You can get it done today.’”
Sierra can tell you exactly how it works.
“It’s a very minimal wait,” she continued. “It’s usually as long as it takes them to fill out their paperwork. Once they’re done with their paperwork, they’re in the room, the doctor sees them. Depending on the lab tests or anything that needs to be done, usually they’re in and out in 20 minutes to a half hour.”
The state-of-the-art X-ray facility is part of the exam room area. X-ray technician Sarah Berrien can expedite images for officers quickly and efficiently, which is a huge benefit for the caregivers at the FRPHC.
When a patient came in with shoulder issues, Berrien could tell that it wasn’t necessarily caused from one injury, but from normal wear and tear. Having that base level understanding of common injuries and how to read the X-rays only better serves officers.
“We’re seeing spinal, joints and knee injuries. Stuff that’s common from being years on the job,” Berrien noted. “The job takes a toll, and that’s what we’re here for to understand that. The doctor’s able to see nice clear images and recognize that degenerative stuff was going on. The patient was able to get it treated and taken care of right away.”
Having the ability to read the images right away is a great service.
“Seeing the film immediately, having the first read by the doctor which is then followed by radiology team before a final read done with the radiologist can all be done within minutes,” Lagana added. “If the doctor has a question, they can read the X-ray together for a super-fast turnaround.”
Labs and Procedures
Lab work is pretty routine when it comes to physicals or any number of tests that need to be run. Another nice aspect of having everything under one roof, including the ability to run labs, is the test center.
“COVID, flu, strep, mono spot. We’re able to do pregnancy and urinalysis,” Lagana confirmed. “We could do that right here while you wait.”
Forget having to wait hours or even days for results. A lot can be done right on the premise.
Everything is kept confidential and kept by electronic medical record. The FRPHC prides itself on using the latest technology to minimize the pain of paperwork.
“Confidentiality is key,” Lagana observed. “We’re very HIPAA compliant.”
So meet this lady. Lagana quips she is all about money.
Actually, Ari Calma is the expert on hand to make sure the FRPHC is compliant with billing and documentation. Calma deals with the insurance companies, so you don’t have to.
Currently, members and their dependents who are in the State Health Benefits Plan have no copay. But the FRPHC takes Horizon plans, and Calma will calm your fears about any billing issues that might occur. Additionally, she is involved in finalizing a contract with Aetna. A verbal agreement is in place. Other carriers will follow.
“We pretty much have the tools that we need in order to make sure that we have all the information so there’s no surprises for the first responders and their family,” Calma explained.
Horizon has provided the FRPHC with information to know who the first responders are and what kind of plans that they have, including whether their coverage is through an HMO. And if it’s an HMO, members will be advised ahead of time that they need a referral.
“We want to make sure that we give the right information to people right up front,” Calma added. “That way, we are able to head off things that would be unpleasant.”
The last stop on the tour and most likely for any patient is the onsite pharmacy. There are a few chairs along the wall, but chances are they won’t be needed with the expedited service.
Pharmacist Joe Bergondo’s wife is detective and a member of Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office Local 339. He’s been a pharmacist for 13 years and knows how patients get frustrated with the problems plaguing retail pharmacies.
“We can offer some services that they can’t offer from a bigger chain,” Bergondo stated. “Where they’re not going to take the time to go through their medications with officers, we can have some of those conversations here.”
Bergondo says having the opportunity to speak with patients and do medication reviews is something the FRPHC can do that other pharmacies can’t take time for.
“We can go through their medicines and say these three or four you’re on are for X, Y, and Z,” he continued. “And maybe review for the appropriate outcomes.”
It’s a win-win for everyone. The patient doesn’t have to worry about translating messages doctor to doctor and Bergondo can connect super quick right after your appointment.
“If there are any discrepancies, there’s no hold times. There’s no waiting,” Bergondo said.
As you make your way to the exit, here are some lovely parting words.
Lagana speaks to the symptoms resulting from why law enforcement officers need a place that concentrates only on their healthcare.
“They work very long hours. They’re away from their families quite a bit. So even trying to find the time to care for yourself is difficult,” she emphasized. “That’s why this is just a wonderful resource. We want them to understand they have to care of themselves in order to take care of others.”
Forrester has dedicated more than two years to getting the FRPHC up and running, and he wants to dispel any barriers to making use of the center. This is not like other patient-centered facilities that require sign-ups. You don’t have to change your primary care. You don’t have to commit for a year to get the service.
“Our model is you come as often as you want,” Forrester reminded. “The freedom is important. It’s completely open and voluntary in every respect.”
So the road to healthy minds and bodies can start here for NJSPBA members. Now that he has built it, Forrester hopes members will come in such force that he will fulfill his dream of a line that looks like the end of the movie “Field of Dreams” with headlights from all the cars trying to get in reflecting in the gloaming.
So don’t wait to get here.
“Once they are able to come and see what we have to offer, hopefully it will be the start of a great relationship,” Dr. Torrente declared. “It’s a matter of spreading the word about the good experiences where the officer will say, ‘Hey, I like it. I’m going to tell all my friends.’”