Getting Personal Staying Small, Thinking Big Is A Way Of Life For Holyoke’s Valley Cancer Center

The staff at the Valley Cancer Center knows where they want to be in five years – right where they are.That’s not to say that the center’s staff doesn’t want to expand and improve on their existing services – providing radiation treatments for cancer patients living near the Holyoke-based facility. Instead, they hope their center stays small, focused on individual care, personable, and, above all, accessible.

The Valley Cancer Center (VCC) opened in 1996, one of the only private cancer treatment facilities in the state. Though housed at Holyoke Medical Center, VCC is an independent entity, managed by the Dolphin Medical Group of Nashville, Tenn., which manages small cancer centers across the country in order to offer accessible care to smaller cities and communities.

Today, the Valley Cancer Center remains one of only four free-standing cancer treatment facilities in Massachusetts and the only one of its kind in Western Mass.

With a new medical director at the helm, Dr. Gloria Frelix, changes are taking place. Frelix understands well, though, the niche that the center has carved out for itself in the area, and only hopes to increase awareness of its unique mission by expanding services, reaching out to the community, and honing in on the challenges small facilities often face – and cofronting them head on.

Frelix said that offering radiation services to cancer patients in a small, easily assessible environment is the center’s reason for being. Most patients are from Holyoke, South Hadley, Northampton, or other surrounding communities, though Frelix said any patient in Western Mass. is welcome at the center, depending on their circumstances.

“This cancer center was initially set up to focus on helping people get radiation close to where they live,” she said. “We’re about convenience and simplifying the process of getting treatment.”

Turning the Tide

As a comparatively small operation, the Valley Cancer Center can do things that most larger cancer-treatment facilities cannot, said Frelix, who noted that she has seen this phenomenon first-hand.

The facility offers van transportation for patients to and from their radiation therapy sessions, and drivers often know the way to the patient’s home without even glancing at a map. One day, she received a call in her office from an elderly patient who needed a ride to her appointment at the last minute.

“She called me and said, ‘can you pick me up?’” Frelix recalled. “We could, and we did. That’s not something the bigger facilities can do; it becomes our business to get these people to their appointments, to know their names, and to call and make sure they’re doing OK at home. It’s attention we like to give.”

Frelix said the center’s staff members – some of whom have been on board since the center’s first year – also strive to understand the community they serve and its needs. Sometimes, that can lead to major changes in the administration of care, prompted by a visit with just one local patient.

“Massachusetts has guidelines in place that say that private radiation centers cannot accept MassHealth,” Frelix said, referring to the Medicaid program. She was on the case immediately, advocating for the Valley Cancer Center to be perceived as a necessary service to the region’s population. When writing or speaking on behalf of the insurance reform, Frelix returned to the center’s core values as a selling point.

“We were set up because Massachu-setts had no cancer centers that weren’t associated with conglomerates,” she said. “We are here because there is nothing worse than being sick and having to be away from familiar things. Some of these people are terminal, and those familiar things – your house, your family, your dog or cat – become even more important. People deserve to be around what they know as much as possible.

“I wrote to everybody – Gov. Romney, John Kerry, Edward Kennedy… the issue needed to be brought out in the open,” she continued. “The state needed to understand where we are located, what we are doing and who we are serving. How can a health care facility not accept MassHealth in Holyoke?”

State Rep. Michael Kane and State Sen. Michael Knapik soon joined Frelix in her fight, and as of this month, the state seems ready to yield.

“It looks like their coming through and we can start billing,” Frelix said.

Her battle for MassHealth all but won, Frelix and the Valley Cancer Center staff are now focusing on a diverse set of initiatives, all designed with the goal of better serving the Western Mass. community. A string of out-reach programs are scheduled in the coming months, including prostate screenings, support groups, and a ‘Look Good, Feel Good’ program for patients, which offers tips on improving appearance during treatment.

The center will also offer two new medical services: prostate brachytherapy, by October, and Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy (IMRT), a more precise form of radiation treatment, by November.

The center’s physicist, Sam Razzaq, said that, when instituting new procedures, a smaller clinic like the Valley Cancer Center sometimes has more hurdles to clear before setting plans in motion. Offering prostate brachytherapy, for instance, is a step that first needs to be approved by the Holyoke Medical Center because the Valley Cancer Center uses the same radioactive storage facility as the hospital. The state requires that private centers must also perform test cases when first incorporating IMRT into their treatment repertoire, after which the center must lobby for reimbursement of the costs of performing those tests.

Staying Small

Still, despite the hoops the center sometimes has to jump through, its ability to function as a small business and act independently far outweigh the challenges, said Razzaq.

“Here, I ask ‘can it be done?’ and if the answer is ‘yes’ — I get that answer right away,” he said. “The person that can give me the answer is sitting in the next room, not miles away. There’s no red tape as far as that goes.”

With that freedom, Razzaq said the center can move forward with improvements in patient care quickly, and the staff can stay on track with the goals they have set for themselves.

“We intend to set new levels in care,” he said. “We are going to work harder and more creatively than everyone else and we’re going to get things done.”

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