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Expansion helps more in need get medical care

Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Dental assistant Berni Murphy chats with a patient in one of the new dental exam rooms in the Neighborhood Health Clinic expansion.
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Calhoun Street is seeing a lot of construction with the Neighborhood Health Clinic’s expansion.

– Year after year, patient after patient, Neighborhood Health Clinics has been quietly growing on the southern edge of downtown.

Well, it hasn’t been too quiet since construction of the massive 303-space, three-story parking garage began.

When the health care provider moved to 1717 S. Calhoun St. in 2000, it had 30 staff. Now it has 135 and is still growing. The 150-space parking lot was frequently overflowing. And the growth is expected to continue.

“Our mission is to serve people with barriers to care,” President and CEO Mary Haupert said. “One of those barriers is having few health care resources, which is not the case north and west. But here, we have a large population of Hispanics and Burmese who have language and cultural barriers. We have a large African-American population in a city where many doctors’ offices don’t have African-American staff. We have people with handicaps.”

They also have a population that doesn’t know about what Neighborhood Health Clinics offers, but are working to change that.

“People don’t know about us until they hear from a family or friend when they need our services,” Haupert said.

Community Relations Specialist Nena Brown said the organization has to balance its need to market itself with its bigger, more pressing need to provide services, but is working to take advantage of as much free advertising as possible and making sure their presence is seen at health fairs and similar events.

“We’re going out into the community a lot more,” Brown said.

That will become even more important as the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, takes effect.

Haupert said there are estimates that up to 20 percent of people in Fort Wayne do not have health insurance; that number is expected to drop to about 5 percent once access is expanded. That will mean thousands of people who do not have a primary care physician will be seeking one, and Fort Wayne already has a shortage of primary care physicians, she said.

“It’ll also be educating people on how to use a regular source of care rather than waiting and going to the emergency room,” Haupert said. “We’re doing what your family doctor would do.”

Unlike many agencies that serve the poor, Neighborhood Health Clinics does not have a maximum income level or a requirement that patients lack insurance. Instead, Neighborhood Health accepts insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, and charges those without insurance on a sliding scale according to their household income. The fees collected cover about half the cost, the rest comes from government and private grants.

Last year, Neighborhood Health’s medical and dental clinics saw 15,000 different people. The Women, Infants and Children nutrition program gave vouchers for nutritious food to 13,500 different people.

And that was before all the construction.

A $675,000 federal stimulus grant helped pay for the $1 million first phase of the expansion; a $6.7 million Affordable Care Act grant is paying for the rest. When complete, the agency will have added two dental exam rooms and six medical exam rooms, new administrative offices, a new entrance, a new intake area that meets federal privacy guidelines, an expanded lab area, the parking garage and a bridge across Calhoun Street linking the parking garage to the new entrance. The expansion will let the clinic add two or three more doctors.

“With the bridge, pregnant women and those pushing strollers don’t have to try to cross Calhoun Street,” Haupert said.

As she walks through the busy hallways, Haupert points to the patients and the staff caring for them.

“We have a much more multicultural staff and clientele than your standard doctor’s offices,” she said. “We can help them understand if there’s language issues, we can help them understand insurance, or the bureaucracy of insurance.”