El Rio: Health Care for All… And Soon in a New Home on West Congress

June 28, 2012

By Teya Vitu

When you hear El Rio Community Health Center, what do you think? Clinic for poor people? Place for only the uninsured?

El Rio’s Gomez Building from 1978 will be replaced by a new two-story building ideally designed for modern medicine.

Scrub your mind of these misconceptions.

It could well be the best kept secret that the El Rio health centers scattered around town are open to all income levels, the insured, the uninsured, the homeless, Raytheon executives – everybody.

El Rio doctors serve as the primary care physicians for 76,000 Tucsonans. They go to El Rio health centers for medical or dental checkups or any other medical/dental ailments that the other 900,000-plus Tucsonans go to their primary care doctor’s or dentist’s office for.

“We’re trying to break down the misconception that 1) you have to be poor or 2) that our facilities are substandard. The doors are open to anybody,” said Brenda Goldsmith, executive director of the El Rio Health Center Foundation.

“Our facilities are above standards,” said Richard Spaulding, El Rio’s strategic planner and facilities director. “They are as good and better than the places middle-class people can get their medical care.”

Spaulding points to El Rio’s newest Southeast and El Pueblo health centers as models for the best health care.

Now all attention is on El Rio’s flagship and oldest health center, the Congress Health Center at 839 West Congress Street in the Menlo Park Neighborhood. The one-story Gomez Building was built in 1978 and has outlived its usefulness in design and just plain function.

“There are all the deficiencies: the roof, the plumbing, the electrical. It just goes on,” Spaulding said. “It needs so much repair and it’s beyond feasible. The cost is $4 million-plus to do any serious renovation.”

A steel skeleton outlined the future El Rio Children’s and Dental Center on West Congress Street as it was built in 1991.

Instead, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on May 3 stepped forward with a $5 million grant that will go to the estimated $14.1 million cost for a new Congress Health Center that will be designed to best suit today’s Patient-Centered Medical Home practices.

El Rio will build this two-story, 50,000-square-foot next-generation health center in front of its two-story children’s and dental center, built in 1991 right next to the Gomez Building.

The new El Rio will also play into creating an urban corridor on West Congress.

This will be a striking transition from an suburban footprint to an urban footprint. In suburban fashion, El Rio’s two buildings now are tucked behind surface parking, somewhat out of sight if you’re driving down West Congress.

The new El Rio structure will come right to the sidewalk, directly across Congress from the western terminus of the streetcar and also Gadsden Company’s five- and six-story West End Station apartment complex, which also will come right to the sidewalk when it’s built in the next year or two.

El Rio’s new Downtown center will double its space and allow it to serve 6,900 more patients beyond the 15,000 patients that currently use the Downtown center that was designed for 7,000 patients. The medical staff can increase from 35 to 43, and the new facility will allow 75 more employees on top of the 224 full-time equivalents now at the Congress Center.

“We have the opportunity for first class medical care in the Downtown community,” Goldsmith said.

Construction is expected to start in spring 2013 and be completed in March 2014.

El Rio started considering a new Downtown center about four years ago.

“We have no idea what it’s going to look like yet,” Spaulding said. “We know what we need to put in the building. We just have to put the pieces together.”

By mid-July, El Rio expects to choose and architect and design team. Then, planners will get input from department heads and staff on how to “put the pieces together.”

“We will also get input from patients,” Spaulding said. “To me, that’s the most exciting part.”

That speaks to El Rio’s legacy. The community health center was established in 1970 by West Side community activists. To this day, 51 percent of the health center’s board members must be El Rio patients.

El Rio does specifically serve the underserved and uninsured with 61 percent of patients or below the federal poverty level and 29 percent seeking treatment with no insurance.

“It’s not free care,” Goldsmith said. “It’s a sliding fee scale based on family income. Sometimes people with insurance think they shouldn’t come to El Rio because they think it would take health care away from someone who needs it. If you come here with insurance, your really are helping your neighbor because you are subsidizing their health care.”

El Rio’s 11 health centers across Tucson offer similar primary care services, but the Congress center is one of only three with dental services and the only one with a hepatitis program, midwifery, mammography, urgent care and Saturday hours.

The Congress center also has designated programs of excellence in asthma and diabetes. Congress also has a pharmacy on-site with lower, federal pricing for prescriptions, but you must be an El Rio patient to use the pharmacy.

Unlike a private practice, where doctors are also running a business, at El Rio the staff deals with administrative functions.

“Doctors get to do what they’re trained to do: practice medicine. A doctor can really do what they want, work with patients,” Goldsmith said.

Like with your primary care doctor, patients at El Rio have their own doctor.

El Rio now has 48 exam rooms. The new building will have about 72 exam rooms plus group exam room.

“We like everything to happen in the exam room. That’s how we’re building now,” Spaulding said.

The 1978 building has a central nursing area with a maze of corridors going off to doctor’s offices. Plus, the center of the building has a large medical records room – square footage becoming increasingly antiquated as electronic records are now compiled and old records are being converted.

The 1978 building also has awkward lobbies.

The new building will be based on pods, with each pod having four exam rooms.

Computer kiosks will be in each pod’s waiting room and there will be booths to make waiting more pleasant for patients and accompanying family.

“Each doctor has his or her own pod,” Goldsmith said. “It’s a more quiet, calming experience. It’s self-contained, like a private doctor’s office.”