Clinics look to expand health care options for poor


Dr. Michael Aguirre, a retired dentist, prepares to x-ray a tooth in the mouth of Lorenzo Green, of Alachua, who was called in to see the dentist after a last minute cancelation by another patient, at the Westside Samaritans Clinic, which operates out of Westside Baptist Church for 4 hours a week, in Gainesville Thursday May 2, 2013.

Brad McClenny / The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, May 7, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 9:08 p.m.

Lorenzo Green doesn't have insurance, so when his tooth started to hurt he figured he'd just have to take a liberal dose of Ibuprofen and deal with the pain alone.

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Dr. Michael Aguirre, a retired dentist, prepares to x-ray a tooth in the mouth of Lorenzo Green, of Alachua, who was called in to see the dentist after a last minute cancelation by another patient, at the Westside Samaritans Clinic, which operates out of Westside Baptist Church for 4 hours a week, in Gainesville Thursday May 2, 2013.

Brad McClenny / The Gainesville Sun

With no insurance and not enough money to pay for dental care, he didn't have many options.

Then he got a last-minute call from the Westside Samaritans Clinic last week. A spot had opened up that evening if he still wanted it.

The clinic is housed within Westside Baptist Church at 10000 Newberry Road and operates one evening a week for about four hours. It is run by doctors, nurses, dentists and others who volunteer their time to help provide medical care to uninsured people.

Green left his home in Alachua and got there as fast as he could. Soon, he was leaning back on a dentist's chair in the church's Fellowship Hall. While he waited to have his tooth pulled, volunteers rummaged for medical tools within a double-tiered black Husky toolbox set up in the corner.

"I mean, I don't have the money to pay to get it pulled," he said, "So I'm glad they have something like this available."

Uninsured residents throughout Alachua County struggle with the same troubles Green does in getting medical care. The Westside Samaritans Clinic provides some help during its weekly session, but Director Roy Klossner plans to open a full-time satellite clinic in southwest Gainesville that will serve the uninsured as well as people on Medicare and Medicaid.

Many residents who live in a section of southwest Gainesville bordered by Tower Road and Interstate 75, known to some as "the Tower Road Triangle," are in need of this kind of service. The Westside Samaritans Clinic and Southwest Advocacy Group (SWAG) each plan to open their own facility to provide medical aid, which would significantly improve area residents' access to health care. But both projects face challenges.

A lack of access

For some nearby residents, the only feasible way to get to the existing SWAG Family Resource Center, at 807 SW 64th Terrace, is to trespass.

Many people who live in Holly Heights or nearby neighborhoods don't have cars and don't have enough money for food, let alone bus fare, said SWAG Family Resource Center Manager Katie Fields. It's a long walk there — too long for most, especially if they are sick or have children with them.

The only workable way they can get there is to cut through Hidden Oaks mobile home park and sneak through the fence. But people are understandably reluctant to trespass.

"Most people don't want to break the law," said Fields, who knows at least one mother who comes through sections of the fence that have been cut open to get to the center. "It just creates another barrier for them."

SWAG is working with Alachua County on a solution that would extend Southwest Eighth Avenue to the neighborhoods on the opposite side of the mobile home park, and eventually connect with Southwest 20th Avenue.

Plenty of people use the resource center, but so many more could, Fields said, if that road were open.

The project would likely take 2 to 3 years to complete, officials said.

A lack of location

The Westside Samaritans Clinic, run by the Westside Baptist Church, serves uninsured people who can find little help elsewhere, but it can only do so much in four hours each week.

With a satellite clinic in southwest Gainesville, it could offer services for at least 40 hours a week and see 10 times the number of patients it does now, said Klossner, who manages the program.

Its medical appointments are filled up a month in advance, and it closed its waiting list for dental services after it exceeded 100 patients. Klossner recalled one patient who walked six miles to get to the clinic.

Volunteers often care for uninsured patients who have been turned away by hospitals and other clinics.

"They don't have anybody to advocate for them," he said. "That's not OK. We can't treat our citizens like that."

Klossner has submitted an application that, if successful, would establish the clinic as a federally qualified health care center capable of accepting Medicare and Medicaid patients as well as the uninsured. If accepted, it would receive a two-year, $1.3 million federal grant to help the clinic get started.

He had an initial location picked out but agreed to find a new one after Paul Myers, administrator for the Alachua County Health Department, pointed out its close proximity to the site of the future SWAG clinic, which would be run by the Health Department, and would be near the current resource center.

"We both want to provide services to those in that community which are in great need," Myers said.

But putting two clinics providing similar services within a quarter-mile of each other isn't ideal.

"We understand 100 percent," Klossner said.

He is looking for a new location in the 32607 and 32608 ZIP codes. He hopes to find a place within the Tower Road Triangle, where there is a great need for these services.

Quoting federal statistics, he said there are about 40,000 low-income people who live in the 32603, 32607, 32608, and 32612 ZIP codes. But only 959 are receiving health care services from a federally qualified health care center, he said, which amounts to a penetration rate of just 2.38 percent.

"If you look at the statistics, it's pretty remarkable. We would like to see at least 2,000 or more patients a year, so we would effectively triple that number or even quadruple it," he said.

Between his clinic and SWAG's, he hopes they can significantly improve that service rate.

For people like Kathy Ellis, the church's once-a-week clinic offers a hand up during a tough time.

Ellis, who is a member of Westside Baptist Church, lost her job as an accountant in October and started going to the clinic in March because she needed blood-pressure medication.

She may feel more comfortable at the clinic than others, she said, because she knows many of the volunteers. But they help as many people as they can, whether they know them or not.

"It's not just for members," she said. "It's for everyone — and they try their very best to help everyone."

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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