Due in part to stimulus, East Tampa health clinic opens

11/12/10 Kate Bradshaw
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The health care debate has shined light on the millions of Americans who live in fear of illness and injury because they can’t afford health insurance. But affordable health care is closer than many people think. Tomorrow marks the grand opening of an East Tampa health clinic that takes in patients regardless of whether or not they’re covered.

The burgundy paint on the walls of the new building looks barely dry. But the waiting area at Tampa Family Health Center’s newest facility is astir. Stephanie Theaker is that organization’s chief operating officer. She says checking in at the new facility, which merged two of the nonprofit’s general care clinics, beats going to the ER.

"Because when you go to the emergency room they're going to treat your immediate needs. They're not going to follow you once you walk outside their door."

Theaker says the clinic, located at 4620 North 22nd Street in Tampa provides basic health care as well as dental.

"We're a primary health care clinic so we do pediatrics, internal medicine, primary care for adults. And we do dental on a sliding scale based on your income."

What’s different about the 22nd street facility is that finances are discussed up front.

"The first thing we do when you come in is to set you up with our financial counselor. Because that's really important. You want to get the legwork done and in place, then if you qualify for any type of assistance, whether it be Medicaid, Medicare, SSI, or the Hillsborough County Health Care plan which is the indigent health care plan for the residents of Hillsborough County. We want to get you into that network of coverage first."

Theaker says patients with little or no income are charged $15, but aren’t required to pay up front.

"Whether you have those fifteen dollars or not, at that particular time we're still going to see you. We'll just tell you we're going to bill you."

Tampa Family Health Center is a nonprofit that started in a single room in an east Tampa church. Now it’s grown into six clinics located throughout Tampa. The current project merges two East Tampa facilities many say were sub-par into one modern building. Representative Betty Reed, a Democratic state legislator from East Tampa, says the surrounding community needs such a facility, especially residents of nearby public housing.

"There are sections of that housing that house seniors and then there's another section that houses young people with babies and small children and so you know it will be wonderful to have that right there in the community for them. I think it's a wonderful idea to put the center in the community where people can walk, or someone can just drop them off so they can get the service they need and not have to go all the way across town."

The project was funded in part with $1.3 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as federal stimulus. Throughout this past election season, Republicans lambasted the nearly $800 billion spending bill for adding substantially to the federal government’s gaping budget deficit. Reed says anyone who criticizes the use of stimulus dollars doesn’t have a grasp on reality.

"I would say to any critic that has something negative to say about the stimulus battle going in that you walk in a person's shoes that lives in this neighborhood for one month. With some of the health issues that we have in this district and then tell me how you feel about using stimulus dollars."

Tampa Family Health chief operating officer Stephanie Theaker says the project has created at least thirty jobs in its construction alone. US Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, says the stimulus has funded similar projects throughout Tampa Bay area.

"It's the second Community Health Center we've opened. We also converted an abandoned Saturn dealership on North Dale Marbry Highway near Leto High School into a Community Health Center. We also opened a new Women's Health Center in south St. Petersburg two weeks ago. So the Recovery Act has created jobs here in the short term, construction jobs in building these new Health Centers, but also they will employ doctors, nurses, dentists, physicians assistants and really provide a lifeline for health services right here in neighborhoods throughout Tampa Bay."

Castor says those who cast the federal stimulus as the main offender when it comes to the US’s budget woes are off mark, given the other significant destinations of US tax dollars.

"We've got huge issues facing the country when it comes to debts and deficits and we've got to confront those head-on. Most of them involve defense spending, Social Security and Medicare so it's very short sighted to say you're going to cut all the rest of the government; judiciary, education, health, you could do all of that and we'd still have huge debts and deficits. The most important thing we can do when it comes to controlling health care costs is to promote more of these clinics, whether they're in the workplace or in your neighborhood like a Community Health Center because if we can lower health care costs by encouraging screenings, primary care and check ups, we'll be able to save a lot of money in the long run."

The East Tampa clinic has been open since Monday, and Castor will preside over a ribbon cutting at the site tomorrow morning starting at 11.

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