The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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August 5, 2012

Pittsburg clinic breaks ground for $5.3 million project

PITTSBURG, Kan. — There was a full waiting room at the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas on Sunday afternoon, but no one was a patient — Sunday is the only day the clinic is closed.

The crowd was composed of residents, local and state officials, board members and staff members who gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony for a $5.3 million expansion.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 is providing the bulk of the funds for the project, which will nearly triple the number of clinical exam areas and help the clinic keep up with a patient load that doubled in the first four years of operation.

The grant money will be used for a 25,000-square-foot expansion that should be complete by January 2014, and to renovate the existing 15,000-square-foot building where the patient load is so high that medical professionals are using closets and restrooms as makeshift service and office space.

The clinic opened in 2006 as a double-wide trailer, and in its first year it provided medical care to 9,300 patients who were underserved and uninsured.

“We quickly outgrew that space,” said Krista Postai, the clinic’s chief executive officer.

Later that year, the clinic purchased land from the county for $1 on the site of the area’s first hospital, Mount Carmel, and began work on the current building.

“We were standing somewhere out there, and it was 103 degrees, breaking ground on what we thought, and what I actually had told our CFO, would be the last building we would ever need,” Postai said.

But two years later, the patient load had doubled. By 2011, the clinic was serving 23,000 patients per year with medical, obstetric, dental, mental health and pharmaceutical services, eligibility assistance, patient education, and access to legal services.

“We promised to be a focal point for anyone who needed help, regardless of their income, or race, or age or personal beliefs,” Postai said.

In the past five years, the clinic has opened satellite locations in Baxter Springs, Columbus, Coffeyville, Coffeyville Public Schools and Allen County, and in a few weeks it will roll out a mobile medical van to serve Pittsburg schools.

“Our parking lot is packed, our waiting room is packed, and it’s essential we grow,” Postai said.

‘A LOT OF CHALLENGES’

The clinic was one of five in Kansas that were chosen to receive federal funding to help accommodate that growth. Clinics in Junction City, Hutchinson, Salina and Wichita also will receive awards.

To qualify, the centers had to demonstrate a high degree of need. The local clinic is seeing 450 new patients each month, according to Postai.

Kansas has experienced a 144 percent increase in the number of uninsured patients going to such health centers during the past decade. Missouri saw an 84 percent increase. In Oklahoma, the increase was 90 percent, and in Arkansas, it was 36 percent.

Southeast Kansas is statistically the poorest area of the state and has the worst health indexes. In school districts in Crawford and Cherokee counties, between 57 and 65 percent of the families with children in public schools are economically disadvantaged. At one Pittsburg school, Westside Elementary, the number has been as high as 93 percent in recent years. The clinic opened a satellite location there last year.

“When you look at maps of Kansas that identify things such as poverty level by county, health disparities by county, those kinds of things, you look at the southeast corner of the state and it’s always the darkest color, always. So you have a lot of challenges here,” said Cathy Harding, executive director of the Kansas Association for the Medically Underserved.

Harding, who spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony, pointed to the local operation as “one of the best, if not the best, community health center in the state.”

Her organization represents 43 clinics of varying sizes throughout Kansas. Until three years ago, three were federally funded. In the past three years, three more have been added to that list.

“The federal Office of Management and Budget noted that community health clinics is one of the 10 most successful federal programs,” Harding said. “And you have one right here.”

Of the patients served by the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, 45 percent are uninsured and 33 percent are on Medicaid. Seventeen percent are between 100 and 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Forty percent are children.

“We were able to attract all this federal funding because we live in the poorest and least healthy region of Kansas,” Postai said. “It’s a competition you hate to win.”

Postai said access to a community health clinic means uninsured patients are more likely to receive important preventive screenings, such as mammograms, Pap smears and health promotion counseling, and to have chronic illnesses caught before they worsen.

‘A TREMENDOUS PURPOSE’

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who has been a staunch supporter of community health clinics, said during the ceremony that such clinics keep patients out of emergency rooms, a more costly health care alternative, and emphasize prevention and wellness, which “can prevent diseases and conditions from changing over time.”

“They serve a tremendous purpose, and they do it in a way that is so much more cost effective than any other way that we can provide health care services to the patients who need those services,” he said.

Moran serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and the labor and health subcommittee, and was cited by Postai and Harding as having been instrumental in federal support of clinics.

At the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, federal grants accounted for $2.3 million, or 18 percent, of last year’s $13.1 million budget. Other elements were patient service revenue, $6.9 million, 53 percent; pharmacy, $2.1 million, 16 percent; state grants, $842,000, 6 percent; foundations, $679,000, 5 percent; and donations, $221,000, 2 percent.

The clinic’s annual report shows the amount of federal grant dollars per user last year was $103.

Postai anticipates in the next three years adding 30 to 40 positions — doubling the center’s current 40 jobs — to accommodate the expansion. The average annual salary at the center is $51,140.

Postai said staff members also would be seeking to raise $1 million in additional funding to put toward the effort.

National numbers

Sunday kicked off National Health Center Week. Nationally, health centers reach more than 20 million people at 8,100 locations, according to the National Association of Community Health Centers. Of those people, 38 percent are uninsured.

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