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Hospital District set to expand services at Gifford Health Center


For Gifford community advocates Freddie Woolfork and Tony Brown, the Hospital District staff and trustees lining the conference room at the Gifford Health Center offered hope that the clinic was destined to recover from a years-long drought of services – and patients.

“This is history!” exclaimed Woolfork at the Oct. 9 meeting. “Somebody take a picture.”

Nobody did. But the images evoked in that meeting – from feral cats to infant mortality to the story of a man who became a father at age 12 – likely stuck with Hospital District trustees Allen Jones, Ann Marie McCrystal and Marybeth Cunningham.

Those discussions are sure to be shared with fellow members of the board in an upcoming collaborative effort that could bring multiple agencies into the Gifford center to provide a wide range of healthcare services now missing from the community.

Last week a move to issue a Request for Proposal, or RFP, that was perceived by Gifford leaders as threatening to the longtime tenant at the clinic, the County Health Department, was shelved.

In its place, the Hospital District Board unanimously agreed to issue a less formal Request for Information, hoping to generate a collaborative effort that could include multiple agencies providing services within their specialty, including the Health Department.

The ambitious goal of the trustees is to have those expanded services in place by Jan. 1.

The Health Department currently provides pediatric services at the clinic along with the We Care program of volunteer physicians. It is a far cry from the initial array of healthcare provided when the clinic opened in 2003. Even so, according to Woolfork and Brown, the Gifford community has formed deep bonds with its Health Department caregivers and canvassers over the years.

The two Gifford leaders feared that as a government-funded agency, the Health Department would not have the flexibility and financial clout of private nonprofits like Treasure Coast Community Health or Whole Family Health Center, both of whom were expected to participate in an RFP.

Woolfork and Brown both firmly believe that the County Health Department has done well at a difficult task as the main provider of health services in Gifford. Since the mid-1990s, its practitioners have managed to earn the trust of the largely low-income community of 5,000, even as programs were slashed or relocated. That trust, Woolfork and Brown argued, would be next to impossible to replicate anytime soon, no matter how competent the replacement might be.

“We have a long history of service in the Gifford community and have forged strong partnerships to improve health there,” said Miranda Hawker, administrator of the Health Department.

“It’s not just about a simple clinical visit. Public health is so much more,” she said.

Hawker pointed to the department’s PACE program that studies health and the environment. Led by Julianne Price, the program has located and replaced leaking septic tanks and contaminated wells. It has put street lights in remote areas to reassure elderly residents living in fear of crime. It has promoted the creations of parks, playgrounds and exercise paths in poor neighborhoods. And it has worked to raze or rehabilitate abandoned houses used by addicts or sex workers.

At the most recent meeting of the Gifford Health Council, Hawker passed around a post card warning against putting food out for the hundreds of stray cats that roam through Gifford, generating a risk of rabies and – of particular consequence to unborn children – toxoplasmosis, which is spread to pregnant women  through cat feces in the soil.

“You have to look at where people live, work and play to improve health and work,” Hawker said. “That is the essential work we do through PACE. All of the other clinical services round out a comprehensive service of health to the community.”

The Gifford Health Center opened with much fanfare in 2003, becoming the first and still the only health center in Gifford. The county had given the land for the building, there was $400,000 in donations, and the Hospital District put up the rest of the money.

Over the years, though, the Health Department had its funding cut by the state a number of times and, in 2014, it moved adult healthcare services out of Gifford to its main building three miles away, leaving only pediatric care at Gifford.

Beyond the Health Department, Gifford Health Center does currently offer other services, all from agencies funded through the Hospital District. There is pre-natal care provided by the Partners in Women’s Health program; there is Healthy Start, a maternal counseling group, which recently moved seven  staffers into the clinic’s offices, including a nurse practitioner; and there is a therapist from the Mental Health Association on premises one day a week.

In addition, a grant two years ago from the Impact 100 group funded a wing now staffed by a full-time doctor with We Care, a group of 120 volunteer doctors who provide care for free. Like the other groups, We Care gets funds from the Hospital District.

At the Oct. 9 meeting in Gifford, Trustee Jones listed his priorities for a new, revitalized Gifford Health Center. Those would include primary and urgent care for adults and for children; extended hours to make it easier for working people to come; mental health counseling; an on-site lab; and maternal counseling.

Jones made clear the District didn’t want to begin a program and have it fail.

Instead, services needed to be studied to make sure there would be adequate patient volumes to sustain them.

Said Jones, “I think it’s really vital that when you go out into the community and say, ‘This is going to be there,’ that it’s going to be there, not just for a few weeks or a few months, but it’s there. If you have to go back and change to, ‘It’s going to be,’  oh, here we go again.”

In the next two weeks, Jones wants to gather a broad swath of healthcare providers, as well as the Gifford Health Council, in one meeting. Among them: the County Health Department, the VNA, telehealth providers and Healthy Start. He also expects representatives from the county’s two other low-cost clinics, Treasure Coast Community Health and Whole Family Health.

Following that meeting, the District will ask for formal suggestions. Those will lead to a final proposal for the Trustees to vote on.

“Hopefully we’ll develop a collaborative effort involving many healthcare providers,” Jones said.