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Come for the health care, stay for the community-building

CEO Phyllis Cater




On July 12, 2012, Spectrum Health Services broke ground on a 36,000-square-foot facility at 52nd Street and Haverford Avenue. The Spectrum Community Health Center, a $14 million facility, is set to open this July, radically expanding health care access in its West Philly neighborhood. 

Phyllis Cater, CEO of the Spectrum Community Health Center, helped clear up a common misconception -- a community health center is not a "free clinic." In fact, there aren't many free clinics left in operation.

"It's a misnomer," explains Cater, "Free is an optimal word. Nothing is free. Our mission is to provide care to anyone who needs it regardless of their ability to pay. It's a sliding scale. We don't want to deny anyone access."

Cater explains that people don't really value things that are free, so some of their services cost only $20. This allows people to invest in their care and contribute to the cost. A community health center, such as Spectrum, is set up to be an accessible, affordable neighborhood healthcare provider. 

According to the National Association of Community Health Centers, community health centers serve the primary health care needs of more than 22 million patients in over 9,000 locations across the United States. Community health centers save money every time an uninsured patient opts for an exam and treatment at the first sign of a health issue instead of waiting until a costly Emergency Room visit.

"The uniqueness of a [community health] center relates to the needs of the population they serve," says Cater. 

For Spectrum Health Services, those needs include case management services, diabetes care, asthma care, dental care and prenatal services (they actually specialize in prenatal depression). Almost one out of two families in Spectrum's neighborhood are below 200 percent of the poverty line, and a full 14 percent of the children have not visited a dentist in over a year. Compared to Philadelphia as a whole, this West Philadelphia community suffers from 72 percent higher infant mortality, 41 percent higher rates of diabetes, 43 percent higher childhood obesity and 62 percent higher rates of childhood asthma [Spectrum Health Services' Case Statement].

One of the more innovative elements of the new facility is their nutrition program which features a demonstration kitchen. Diet is a key factor in preventative care.

"Other organizations have programs to respond to hunger and other health centers may have a nutrition program, but having a demonstration kitchen will enable us to help people even further," says Cater. "We will have a full-time nutritionist and provide cooking classes to promote cooking vegetables and healthy foods that people may not have been exposed to before. [We'll show] how to make them tasty and get kids to eat them."

Preventative care at this level is a service not provided by most health insurance companies. That said, only about 20 percent of Spectrum Health Services' current visitors are uninsured. These nutrition services are free or nominally priced, and stand as a reminder of what really sets this community health center apart. 

On the coat tails of the Supreme Court's decision upholding the the Affordable Care Act (ACA), this is a big year for healthcare both locally and nationally. The ACA's major regulations go into effect in 2014. 

"Insurance allows us to make services affordable," says Cater. "[ACA] will increase coverage -- it will be good for us."

And what about competitors? Not only is Cater fine with her patients going to other healthcare providers, she encourages it. "More importantly, [the ACA] allows people to have more choice in how they get their care," she adds.

This concern for healthcare accessibility is also at the heart of Spectrum's mission and its role in the community. They do outreach through local churches and senior centers, and hold health fairs in the neighborhood. The new space also boasts a community room designed specifically to encourage neighbors -- whether they're patients or not -- to utilize the center. 

Economic development will also result from the expanded health center. "We are an economic engine," says Cater. "Forty percent of our staff live in the community."

Growing a major employer should encourage development and additional investment. "A lot of the business and commercial entities have left the neighborhood," explains Cater. "By putting this health center at 52nd and Haverford, we are a catalyst for economic development." 

The facility was funded through a constellation of grants and loans totaling $14 million, led by a $2 million grant from the city's Brownfields Economic Development Initiative (BEDI), a $1.7 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and loans of $2.4 million administered through the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC), Philadelphia's city-wide economic development organization. 

To qualify for the Brownfields Economic Development Initiative (which is no longer available), the project needed to involve environmental remediation -- another boon for the neighborhood. 

"The best part is that it will provide access to the community," says Angel Crowder, director of human resources at Spectrum Health. "Growing up in West Philadelphia, I know how limited the options were. This provides health care to the neighborhood. Transportation can be an issue for people, especially if they're sick. What Spectrum is bringing to the neighborhood is just fantastic."

RACHEL DUKEMAN is Managing Director of Plays & Players and is a cultural marketer and planner throughout the region. Send feedback here.

Photographs by JEFF FUSCO
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