ST. PAUL — A central Minnesota reproductive health clinic that opened after the local Planned Parenthood closed is seeking a special state designation to access additional funding sources and accept more private health insurance.

WeARE The Clinic offers contraceptive services and promotes sexual education in Brainerd, Minn., and the surrounding area but does not provide abortions or abortion referrals. Gaining the Essential Community Provider, or ECP, would further legitimize the clinic "for the work that we're doing every day," according to executive director Becky Twamley.

Since opening its doors nearly four years ago, the clinic has filled a gap that the city had struggled to fill after the local Planned Parenthood location closed in 2011.

An ECP designation would also serve as a recognition of sorts of the unique role the clinic plays as one of the only reproductive and sexual health care providers of its kind in the area. It is typically reserved for providers serving "uninsured persons and high-risk and special needs populations, underserved, and other special needs populations," according to state statutes.

The clinic, which according to Twamley serves 60 to 70 people a month, would also be eligible for additional grant funding opportunities and be in a better bargaining position with private health insurers if its ECP application is approved. Privately insured individuals make up only a small fraction of the clinic's client base, Twamley said in an interview, but health plans are required to offer provider contracts to ECPs in their coverage area.

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"I might only get one person that has a particular private insurance, and if we don't have a contract with them the insurer can consider us out of network or pay us differently," Twamley said. "So, with this designation, they can't deny us payment."

Twamley said the approval process, which includes a public comment period and a Minnesota health department site visit, could be completed as soon as the end of summer. The clinic submitted its application in January, she said.

Designations are good for five years and have been granted to numerous providers of differing specialties across Minnesota.

When the clinic opened in October 2017, according to Twamley, Crow Wing County had one of the highest rates of adolescent pregnancy in Minnesota. Since then, teens and young adults from neighboring counties have sought out its services.

"We typically will serve about a 45- to 60-mile radius around Brainerd," Twamley said. "We often see clients from Pine River, Wadena, Pillager, Staples ... lots of small towns around that maybe don't have access to the services we offer here."

About 20% of clinic visits are made by young men, according to Twamley, oftentimes for sexually transmitted disease tests. The other 80% are made by younger women, whom Twamley said visit for annual exams or contraceptives. Most visitors are on some form of publicly funded health insurance, which the clinic also can help individuals to sign up for.

Twamley said the clinic does work that meets the criteria for ECP designation and that it spends "a lot more time with patients ... than people in traditional care."

"We don't turn anyone away," she said.