Nationally, health centers provide preventive medical care to almost 30 million people each year, addressing the pandemic and beyond. Nearly 1,400 health centers like Healthcare Network seek health fairness. Health centers pledge to care for those who suffer more than others from long-term sickness and poor health.
As a result, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in April awarded more than $1.3 billion to health centers nationwide. That’s about $4 per person in the U.S. The funding helped centers detect, prevent and identify coronavirus.
Centers funded by Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) serve 1 in 12 people nationwide. HRSA Administrator Tom Engles said in a news release: “Increasingly, people are turning to health centers for the first line of defense in combating emergency public health priorities like the novel coronavirus. Health centers will put these resources to…respond to emerging and evolving local needs and continue to deliver high quality primary health care services to their patients.”
Since 1977, Healthcare Network has provided care to migrant, rural and underserved Collier County residents. “The pandemic has only widened the health and economic disparity. Groups considered at-risk before the pandemic are now struggling most,” said Dr. Emily Ptaszek, president and CEO of Healthcare Network. “Throughout this difficult year, Healthcare Network has worked hard to fulfill its commitment to make healthcare accessible to everyone, regardless of income, job or insurance status.”
Addressing the Pandemic
Since the pandemic started, Healthcare Network has met the community’s needs. For example, we gave nearly 7,000 (and counting) free COVID-19 tests. Also, we were the first to offer mass testing to remote Marco Island, Golden Gate and Everglades City. To ensure patients didn’t miss essential appointments, we offered medical and behavioral telehealth. Free mental health appointments are available to essential workers.
In addition, Healthcare Network hired Julie Pedretti to serve as COVID-19 community relations director. She leads the organization’s COVID-19 Response Team. This group is dedicated to increasing COVID-19 testing, education and outreach programs throughout Collier County.
The response team goes door-to-door, using culturally appropriate materials and messaging. The team also connects people with help for physical and mental health, and food and housing.
“The communities we are targeting are particularly vulnerable,” said Pedretti. “Many live in crowded spaces and work in essential jobs that cannot be performed from home. They have language and literacy barriers and/or have existing chronic health conditions.”
The team also manages Healthcare Network’s COVID-19 Resource Line. Team members answer questions and provide information in several languages on local resources and testing locations. The COVID-19 Resource Line is available by phone at 239.675.7080 or by email at HCNcovid@HealthcareSWFL.org.
Beyond the Pandemic
Soon, health centers will participate in COVID-19 vaccination education. “We have been working closely with local and state health leaders. Our teams are prepared to administer the vaccine based on CDC guidelines,” said Ptaszek. “However, outreach and education will be critical to build confidence in the vaccination. This is especially important for vulnerable communities where language and cultural barriers exist, as well as historical distrust in health care.”
While addressing the pandemic, Healthcare Network has been committed to improving community health. In June, we opened the three-story Nichols Community Health Center in medically underserved Golden Gate. The center offers children’s medical and dental care, obstetrics and gynecology, adult and senior care, integrated behavioral health and a drive-thru pharmacy.
“When the risk of the pandemic passes, we will likely see peaks of other illnesses and chronic disease related to deferred primary care,” Ptaszek said. “We will be here for our community. We have taken steps to address a looming mental health crisis resulting from isolation, change and stress by offering free mental health resources to essential workers.”
Mental Health Support
Healthcare Network has an integrated behavioral health model. Patients are screened for mental and behavioral health issues during regular medical appointments. If necessary, they can seamlessly begin treatment with on-staff mental health providers. The model is effective because many people come seeking relief for physical symptoms that are related to mental and behavioral problems. Alternatively, illness can lead to depression, stress or other behavioral health issues.
While it may be difficult to predict what the next year will bring, Healthcare Network will continue to serve at-risk people, addressing the pandemic. We provide great care to nearly 50% of Collier County’s children. We fill a key part in keeping the community healthy, improving work and school attendance that benefits local businesses.
“HRSA-funded health centers are already playing a critical role by delivering essential services, serving as community testing and screening sites, and alleviating burdens on our nation’s emergency rooms and hospitals,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar in a press release. “HHS will continue bringing every resource we have to support heroic healthcare workers across the diverse settings health centers serve, from our cities to our rural towns.”
About The Author
Haris Domond is a certified mental health counselor and board chair for Healthcare Network. Essential workers wishing to receive up to three free mental health appointment via telehealth or in person can learn more at HealthcareSWFL.org/Direct-Relief, or call 239.658.3185.