Having grown from a few exam rooms in a moldy warehouse to a modern medical, dental and vision practice, the low-cost GraceMed clinic is at the threshold of its most ambitious expansion yet — a $7.5 million facility to serve southern Wichita and Sedgwick County.
The Greater Wichita YMCA has agreed to give GraceMed three acres of land at its south campus on Meridian just north of I-235, said David Sanford, chief executive officer of the clinic.
“We just thought that would be a perfect partnership, a health clinic with a health and fitness organization,” Sanford said.
He said GraceMed has applied for a federal grant of $5 million toward building the new 20,000-square-foot clinic. The clinic expects a decision by early April.
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If the grant is approved, the design and site work will begin almost immediately, although GraceMed will still need to raise $2.5 million, he said.
“I’m enough of an optimist to believe that if we get two-thirds of the money … that gives me one and a half to two years to raise the remaining funds to go ahead and finally equip that building,” Sanford said.
Sanford’s confidence is backed up by GraceMed’s phenomenal growth during the eight years he’s been at the helm of the operation.
When he arrived in 2004, GraceMed, a project of the United Methodist Church, was a financially troubled medical ministry sharing a building with a church-sponsored food bank.
“It was just a nasty, terrible place for a clinic,” Sanford recalled. “Every time it rained, we had to get out the bucket brigade.” When the clinic moved, “we found mold in the ceilings and the walls,” he said.
Today, GraceMed operates a modern full-service practice with dental and optometric services, five – soon to be six – satellite clinics, and medical vans to take care into the community where it’s needed. GraceMed is planning to open its sixth satellite clinic at Dodge Elementary School in west Wichita. The nonprofit offers medical care on a sliding-fee basis to those without health insurance.
In eight years, the clinic has nearly quadrupled its number of patient visits, serving a population in which nearly all are underprivileged, unemployed, uninsured or all of the above.
In 2004, GraceMed handled 15,000 patient visits. In the past year, the clinic handled about 30,000 medical and 27,000 dental patient visits.
The persistent economic downturn – especially aircraft industry layoffs — has sent many of those patients to GraceMed’s door.
“People who used to have the gold plan of health insurance can no longer afford to pay their COBRA premiums,” Sanford said. “They’re now calling us to have a place that will see them when they don’t have insurance.”
GraceMed also is in the process of expanding its ability to serve expectant mothers to compensate for budget cuts that closed down the Sedgwick County Health Department’s prenatal clinic, Sanford said.
GraceMed acquired its main clinic building at 1122 N. Topeka, in a low-cost lease arrangement with the Via Christi Health system in 2006. Via Christi also helped outfit the clinic.
About a year later, GraceMed met the requirements to become a “federally qualified health center,” Sanford said.
The status upgrade opened up new grant avenues for GraceMed, and equally importantly brought its practitioners under federal tort-claim protection.
Freed of having to pay the high cost of malpractice insurance, “it allowed us to divert a significant amount of money to patient care,” Sanford said.
The Rev. Jon Jones, a retired Methodist pastor who serves as GraceMed’s chaplain, had been involved with the clinic since it began in 1979. Back then, as a pastor in Newton, he served on the denomination’s regional Board of Global Ministries, which helped launch GraceMed.
Jones said the clinic started at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church as an outreach to the Hispanic community, with two nurses who could provide some basic care and referrals.
When Jones came to Wichita in 1990, his church, East Heights United Methodist, paid the salary for what was at the time GraceMed’s only physician, he said.
“I don’t know that I would have imagined 20 years ago that it would be what it is today,” Jones said.
But as much as it has changed, GraceMed has stayed true to its original mission, he said.
“That vision was always there,” he said. “It’s taken many different forms and shapes. Where we are now has just built upon that path of helping people in need, with a spiritual base.”
Jones and a group of volunteer chaplains watch the waiting room and offer their counseling when they see patients who looks like they need to talk.
He also said the clinic has maintained its traditional spiritual tie with the city’s Hispanic community. All the devotions he writes are translated for non-English speakers.
Jones attributes GraceMed’s rise primarily to Sanford, who came to the job with the business sense and sharp pencil of an experienced health executive, combined with a missionary’s zeal for caring for the needy.
That, and a staff inspired by the clinic’s mission, summed up by a sign on the staff door: “You will see God in the people you serve.”
GraceMed may not have the marble floors and giant fish tanks of some of the area’s more opulent medical practices. But the ambience is comparable to most midrange medical offices.
Although the bulk of the patients are at the low end of the economic ladder, they deserve the same kind of professional environment they’d get at a private medical practice, “not what they would immediately recognize as a second-class facility,” Sanford said.
“My perspective’s always been, regardless of my other political leanings, that health care should be a right, not a privilege,” Sanford said.
He said he’s not worried for GraceMed’s future, even with all the changes that will come with the federal Affordable Care Act, which aims to get millions of more Americans covered by private health insurance.
A lack of patients “is one of the things I’ve never been concerned about in my position,” he said.
Whether people have insurance or not, it’s a question of capacity and access, he said.
“You put us all together and we’re still not addressing all the needs people have in this community,” he said.