Family Health Center heals and educates

Preventative care is often the last thing on the minds of uninsured and low-income residents in Kalamazoo County who rely on the Family Health Center as their primary and often only source for healthcare.

"It is not uncommon for our patients to come in with full blown cancer or full blown cardiac arrest," says Denise Crawford, president and chief executive officer of Family Health Center, Inc. "We are trying to educate the population we serve about the importance of preventative care and address the issue so that they know the benefit of coming in for an office visit, which may cost $50, versus a $70,000 bill for open heart surgery."

Previously, a lack of funding and resources at the health center meant that the focus had to be on the organization’s primary mission--to provide healthcare to anyone regardless of their economic circumstances.

Now Family Health Center is doing more to get the word out about the need for preventative care. The health center has hired four full-time employees who are responsible for providing information about the importance of seeking out medical care before your condition becomes critical.

Peter Battani, Kalamazoo County administrator, says the Family Health Center is "very, very important to the community." He says the organization meets the healthcare needs of the low income and underserved.

"We started an initiative about a year-and-a-half ago which looked at significant disparities in healthcare and the health risk factors as a function of race and poverty in Kalamazoo County," Battani says.

As an example he cited the county’s infant mortality rate which is still "way too high and unacceptable."

A $10.3 million expansion of the FHC’s main offices at 117 W. Paterson Street, completed in July, 2012, enabled Crawford to hire more staff to meet the needs of an ever-increasing population of underserved individuals in Kalamazoo County.

The expansion was the result of a $9.3 million federal Affordable Care Act grant that the health center received in October, 2010, and $1 million in matching funds from the FHC.

In addition to increasing its capacity to treat its targeted population, the expansion provides a major opportunity for the FHC to meet a projected increase in the number of people with access to insurance as a result of healthcare reform.

"In gearing up for this we knew there would be a significant increase in the number of people with access to healthcare," Crawford says. "They will be provided an insurance card and not have a place to get care."

The Family Health Center is a Federally Qualified Health Center, which means it can be reimbursed for designated costs and is a primary Medicaid service provider. Like emergency rooms, it is not allowed to turn away any person seeking medical care.

The facility pre-expansion had 34 exam rooms and maxed out at 15,000 patients. The current facility has 104 exam rooms and the capacity to treat 40,000 individuals.

When Crawford took over the leadership of the health center in 2009 about 15,000 individuals were receiving healthcare services.  That same year she says their population was 60,000 people in actual need.

Battani says the physical location of the health center in a neighborhood populated with predominantly people of color who are low income is an important piece of the county’s healthcare puzzle.

"People are more likely to go there if it’s in their neighborhood," he says.

Crawford says new patients are primarily those who are newborns to 19 years of age, followed by the pre-Medicare population between ages 20 and 60.

"These are the two largest groups of individuals that we treat," Crawford says.  "Those who are over 65 represent a much smaller population for us because they have access to Medicare."

"We knew we weren’t even meeting the needs of this population," Crawford says.

In addition to increasing the health center’s physical space, the expansion also allowed the organization to add the equivalent of 56 full-time positions, bringing the total number of employees at its seven locations to 210. About 98 of the staff works at the main offices on Paterson. The FHC’s annual budget is about $22 million with $1.7 million coming from a federal government subsidy to serve the homeless population.

The health center was able to treat more patients because of a collaboration with physician residency programs offered through area hospitals and the former Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies, now part of Western Michigan University’s new medical school.

The most significant challenge faced by the health center is a need for primary care providers. Crawford says many medical school students are opting to specialize.

"It’s more of a challenge for us because we’re in competition with the rest of the United States," Crawford says. "Once they come to Kalamazoo we’ve got to convince them to work with an at-risk, underserved population and work within the pay guidelines."

The cost of a visit to the FHC can be anywhere between $5 and $100.

"Many people we treat for $10," Crawford says. "That is our most common visit charge for the uninsured.

"We provide care to anyone who walks through our door. We are not allowed to turn anyone away."

Jane C. Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. 
Photos by Erik Holladay

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