Hunter Health Clinic receives federal grant for new building

05/01/2012 5:00 AM

05/01/2012 9:44 PM

In the five years since 2007, as the economy tanked and as local businesses laid off workers and cut medical benefits, the community health center that helps take care of Wichita’s under-insured saw its patient numbers jump higher every year.

In 2007, the Hunter Health Clinic served 20,881 patients; in 2008 when the recession started: 24,500. By last year: 33,840, said Hunter CEO Susette Schwartz.

So it was with some relief that Schwartz helped make an announcement on Tuesday:

The clinic will construct a new building after receiving a $4.6 million federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday.

The new place, to open by perhaps 2014, will have 45,000 square feet, twice what it has in the former strip shopping center it has used for 35 years at Central and Grove. “We’re finally going to get people out of the basement,” Schwartz announced to cheering clinic staff on Tuesday.

The new clinic will be built next to the current clinic. The total cost of construction is not yet known.

Hunter is where low-income people and people lacking insurance go for many medical needs including prenatal care, dentistry, optometry, behavioral health, diabetes care, nutrition care and minor surgery. There are also services for the homeless, which make up about 3,000 of the patient rosters. About 8,000 are children.

About 70 percent of the patients there have no medical insurance.

In a political election year, Schwartz has heard all the usual arguments, including that giving people something for free creates a lack of incentive to work.

“But most of the people we see do work, and want to work; many of them have two or three jobs,” Schwartz said.

The front desk staff at Hunter has had front row seats at what the recession has done to Wichitans, Schwartz said. The number of patients jumped as soon as the layoffs began at the aircraft factories and small businesses. Her staff has seen other trends: many businesses are cutting benefits, or offering only part-time jobs, meaning no benefits; so most of Hunter’s patient lists include people who work, but have no benefits or are under-insured.

The space at the former strip shopping center is so small that patients sometimes have to be put off for care, meaning they come in at another time, or if they can’t wait for their care they must go to emergency rooms.

Jay Angoff, the regional director of the Department of Health and Human Services, made the announcement of the award Tuesday morning at the clinic.

Angoff said the award was part of $730 million in federal money being given to community health centers nationally as part of the Affordable Health Care Act. Five community health centers in Kansas will share about $21 million in federal grants for expansion projects.

Nationally, he said, there have been 190 new center constructions begun under the act since 2009, as needs of the indigent and low income people have grown. There are 3 million more people being served by community health clinics since the beginning of 2009 and one in 16 Americans get health care at community centers, he said.

Needs locally are still growing. Schwartz said she estimates 10,000 additional patients a year will seek services from the clinic after the new building opens. There will be a ripple effect on the local economy, Schwartz said: 25 new employees in the first year, and probably 25 more each year after that for several years.

Besides the main office, Hunter has five locations around town offering various services.

The clinic helps the community not only by taking in low-income patients, but in giving relief to local hospitals. Those patients, if Hunter did not exist, could go to hospitals, which can’t turn them away and have to absorb the cost. Hunter gave away $3 million in free medical care to the indigent last year, Schwartz said, calling it an impressive total for such a small operation.

In addition, she said, the clinic is a teaching center, providing on-the-job training for about 100 student doctors, nurses and medical workers.

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