El Rio Health Center Expands Downtown

August 13, 2014

The new El Rio Congress Health Center began serving patients July 30.

The new El Rio Congress Health Center began serving patients July 30.

by Brad Poole

The west edge of downtown got a wellness boost recently, when El Rio Community Health Center opened an ultra-modern medical facility on Congress a block west of Interstate 10.

Though technically not a hospital, the El Rio Congress Health Center – which has already saved a homeless man’s life – narrowly misses that mark. With a speedy, digital radiology department, an on-site pharmacy and lab, and a staff of 180 doctors, pharmacists, nurses and support staff, the collection of clinics can treat all but the most complicated medical problems.

Though it integrates services El Rio already offers at various spots in the city, no other clinics will close, said Regional Director Penny Whitley, R.N.

Wide hallways double as waiting areas, allowing patients to spread out and wait closer to their exam rooms. Every other light fixture is a solar panel, bringing in natural light, and the areas with railings are "light wells" that allow the light to get downstairs.

Wide hallways double as waiting areas, allowing patients to spread out and wait closer to their exam rooms. Every other light fixture is a solar tubes, bringing in natural light, and the areas with railings are “light wells” that allow the light to get downstairs.

“As fast as we build them, they come,” she said, referring to El Rio’s growing patient population of 81,000. With planned new staff, the Downtown center, which replaces a smaller one there, will eventually serve 22,000 patients annually, up from the current 15,000.

Tucson native Frank Valenzuela, 66, an El Rio patient and board member for more than two decades, was all smiles about the gleaming facility. He is among the 40 percent of El Rio patients who do not live in poverty. After a 40-year career in banking, Valenzuela has private insurance and comes to El Rio for the quality of the care. Patients used to have to shuttle from place to place to get things done, but not anymore.

“I can come here and get my blood work done, and get my X-rays, and see my doctor, and we also have dental,” he said.

Centralized, comprehensive care is important to El Rio patients, because more than half live in poverty, said Brenda Goldsmith, executive director of the El Rio Foundation.

Towering, energy-efficient windows flood the lobby with natural light.

Towering, energy-efficient windows flood the lobby with natural light.

“Probably the biggest misconception is that the care will be sub-standard. The other big misconception is that you have to be at some level of poverty to access our services,” she said. Neither is true.

The exterior features a two-story, curved, blue wedge with a massive east-facing bank of windows. The Earth tones of the other exterior features and blue tower evoke a desert landscape and sky. The interior of the building is designed for two key features – natural light and wide open spaces. The colored glass panels and metal framing of broad staircase railings offer a technical feel.

The two-story lobby includes a kitchen and coffee counter run by perennial 4th Avenue favorite, Cafe Passé, where patients and staff can get drinks and snacks (including a staff favorite – breakfast burritos). The huge windows give the lobby an open, outdoorsy feel, and a single, massive ceiling fan keeps the air flowing.

Instead of one large waiting area, the new building has numerous curved, colorful couches spread out along wide hallways. That allows patients to wait closer to one of the eight treatment areas, each of which has 10 exam rooms. Upstairs, every other light fixture in the ceiling is a solar tube, and large “light wells” let that light get to the first-floor waiting areas.

The $15 million, 18 month project was paid for in part with a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and a $5 million short-term loan. The El Rio Foundation, the organization’s fundraising arm, kicked in $800,000.

The building is open for business and started serving patients July 30.

Share on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInPin on Pinterest