The Squirrel Hill Health Center is going mobile, courtesy of the federal government.
Susan Friedberg Kalson, CEO of the health center, has announced that the SHHC is receiving $310,725 in federal stimulus money to streamline its services. A portion of that money — $78,700 — will be used to upgrade its electronic record system, but the rest — $232,025 — is earmarked for a custom-built mobile medical unit that will be used to visit patients where they live.
“Since before we opened we thought it would be a really good thing for us to have,” Kalson said. “It’s an exam room on wheels; it allows us to go all over the place with a doctor, medical assistant and nurse, and provide comprehensive care to those who really can’t get to us.”
The SHHC must seek three bids to build the unit, which must be American made. Kalson hopes it will be ready by January or February 2010.
Once it’s built, it will change the way the SHHC cares for its patients.
In May, the center experienced a 5 percent increase in the number of uninsured patients it is seeing — 40 percent of its patient load. Kalson attributes that spike to the recession, but she notes that the center has experienced steady growth since its opening in 2006.
“We are starting to press the limits of how many people we can see at our existing site (the Charles R. Morris Building of the Jewish Association on Aging),” Kalson said. “We can be much more efficient and effective in reaching people by bringing it (the clinic) to them rather than seeing them in our existing structure.
“It’s a lot less expensive to build a mobile medical unit than to build a stationary site,” she added.
Among the patient groups the unit will serve are the elderly, immigrants — particularly Burmese refugees the Jewish Family & Children’s Service is settling in the suburbs — and mentally ill people who find it difficult to get primary health care.
“There’s a lot of research that shows people with serious mental illnesses die years earlier than the general population, in part, because everyone is focused on primary health issues and they have a lot of trouble getting primary health care,” Kalson said.
Dr. Andrea Fox, medical director of the SHHC, says much preliminary work remains to be done before the unit is delivered, such as setting up regular routes and schedules.
Another job, she said, is establishing the trust of patients seen in the unit.
“We need to make a commitment to be at these places regularly,” said Fox, who worked in a mobile unit while on staff at the V.A. Medical Center. “If you have a clinic on wheels, how do you know it’s coming back? We want the people to know this is a real place to get health care.
“It takes a while for people to trust the site enough to go into the unit in the first place,” Fox added. “We’re going to do some open houses when we go to those sites so people can look at it and test the waters for a while.”
The funding for the unit is part of the $1.5 billion package from the American Recovery and Investment Act designated for community health. Federally qualified health care centers, such as the SHHC, must apply for the money, which has been doled out in separate rounds.
The American Recovery and Investment Act is the official name for the economic stimulus package Congress passed and the president signed in February. It provides $787 billion for tax relief, jobless benefits, social welfare, as well as education, health care and infrastructure projects.
The first round came earlier this year. At the time, SHHC received $122,000 to retain and add staff if necessary to meet demand for its services.
Another round is coming up that will allocate money for capital projects for community health centers. Kalson said the SHHC is applying for funding to open a dental site.
“We’re still hoping to build a dental site,” she said, “so stay tuned.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)