Evanston community clinic ushers in first patients

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Susan Du/Daily Senior Staffer

Clinic staff and supporters flank Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen and Erie Family Health Center CEO Lee Francis as they inaugurate the first community clinic servicing Evanston and Skokie.

Susan Du, City Editor

When Skokie resident Mercedes Fernandez was laid off from her job at Hoy Chicago, the Chicago Tribune’s Spanish daily newspaper, she also lost her health insurance. With no income, no car and critical diabetes, Fernandez traveled a dizzying two and a half hours to a Chicago community clinic, where she was immediately given insulin.

“(My doctor) basically saved my life,” Fernandez said. “After I got a job, I still went to that location because of the service they provided. My doctor was very compassionate, and something that I really liked was that he was concerned about who I was, what did I do, how is my family. He thinks about me as a person, not as a case. Normally in the clinics for low-income families, people don’t treat you that well because it feels like you are a charity.”

Erie Family Health Center, which was founded by volunteer physicians from Northwestern Memorial Hospital, is a network of 13 health clinics that focus on providing affordable care to low-income patients. Twelve of Erie’s clinics are located in Chicago. The 13th, the Evanston/Skokie Family Health Center, was inaugurated Monday in Evanston.

Erie’s Evanston branch opened on the first floor of the Morton Civic Center, where it shares space with the city’s health department. Its general health, dental and behavioral health offices will operate there temporarily until it can move into a larger location in the summer of 2013. At that time, Erie will also expand to double its current services, providing care for more than 5,500 patients annually.

Erie Evanston/Skokie hopes to raise $2.7 million to support operational costs. Currently, it is nearly halfway to its goal, as NorthShore University HealthSystem contributed $1.2 million for capital renovations, and the clinic’s community-led fundraising campaign gathered an additional $100,000.

Dr. Lee Francis, president and CEO of Erie Family Health Center, addressed a crowd of supporters attending the clinic’s ribbon-cutting Monday.

“Erie is proud and privileged to be the very first community health center serving the Evanston/Skokie corridor,” he said. “As an organization, we are committed to locating in communities where we are needed the most. And clearly, there is great need here in Evanston and Skokie. In fact, we are already scheduled to see more than 50 new patients, and that’s during the first week alone. And the calls keep coming in.”

Francis recalled that Erie and the municipal governments of Evanston and Skokie worked together to bring the clinic to their community. Evanston and Skokie reached out to several federally qualified health centers to fulfill their precise needs and, after extensive research, settled on Erie.

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, who attended the opening, expressed her excitement at finally seeing the results of the long search for affordable health care.

“I had qualms about this from the start,” Tisdahl said, reflecting on the beginning stages of soliciting clinical care providers. “I said, ‘Well, how good is Erie? I don’t want to do all this work and find out we’re getting mediocre health care.’ And the more I looked into Erie, the better and better it became. I have confidence the long wait for Evanston citizens to get health care is over, and high-quality health care is going to be provided here.”

Spirits were high all around as staff and supporters celebrated the Erie’s opening. The clinic’s first patients trickled in Monday morning. Evonda Thomas, Evanston’s health director, said prior to Erie, there weren’t many local alternatives for the city’s low-income residents to seek health care.

Because local hospitals service a large community base, Evanston residents often had to compete for available appointments. Sometimes patients reported it would take two to three months before receiving an appointment to see a physician, Thomas said, and those who needed care would either go to the emergency room or forgo care entirely.

“The delay in getting care was just unacceptable,” Thomas said. “It’s an emotional day. It’s a great day. This was a lot of work. For me as a health director delving into an arena of clinical care was such a learning process for me, and learning just how to solicit a federally qualified health center in a strategic way was just amazing.”

The Erie sign above the doorway to the first floor of the Morton Civic Center reads, “Erie Family Health Center, Centro de Salud Erie.” Part of the health center’s efforts to care holistically for its main patient base is language accommodation, said Amelia Madrigal, an Erie board member. Madrigal has been an Erie patient for 12 years.

“As a patient, I feel saved; as a member of the board, I am very proud that we are spreading over here to Evanston because I know there is a lot of people with no insurance,” she said. “Everybody who speaks Spanish, they’re going to be so happy. We have a lot of Spanish-speaking staff.”

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