With the Monroe County Health Department refocusing its mission away from primary care, the Lower Keys Community Health Center (LKCHC) has arrived just in time, according to its top administrator, Daniel Smith.
This Federally Qualified Health Center, located on the second floor of the dePoo Medical Building on Kennedy Drive, has been open for eight months, with well-known local physician Dr. Jerome Covington, serving as medical director, and Lin Klingbeil as nurse practitioner.
It's run by the Rural Health Network, where Smith serves as chief executive officer. Rural Health Network also operates three dental clinics throughout the Keys.
It's taken 10 years of grant-applications to finally bring the facility to fruition, in space donated by the Lower Keys Medical Center, and with a budget of $2.25 million per year.
The LKCHC operates on a sliding scale, meaning that for someone with income at 100 percent of the federal poverty rate of $11,490, the fee per visit is just $25.
It's not just a hospital for lower income people, though.
"The great thing about this place is that anybody can come here," said Smith, who wrote the federal grant that finally brought about the LKCHC, last June. "The rates vary, but we can see anyone. With the health department moving out of primary care, they started transitioning patients over here. We take walk-ins to 5 p.m., although we prefer to make appointments for our patients."
The center, currently comprising two medical "teams," each working out of a pair of examination rooms, is already filling a vital niche in the community, according to Registered Nurse Leslie Barstow.
"We see all ages, men and women, from children to seniors," Barstow said. "We do everything from removing stitches, to women's health, family planning, wound care, primary care and patient education, especially in areas like smoking and dietary assistance. It's like a normal doctor's office. We also do a lot of referrals, or have doctors come here."
Besides the exam rooms, the clinic has a small lab, which can process routine tests, such as pap smears and blood work. More complicated labs are outsourced, in keeping with the set-up of LKCHC.
With their varied ethnic backgrounds, staff members are able to assist most clients in their own language, a point of pride for Daniel Smith.
"The staff is very diverse," he said. "We've got people here from Chile, Eastern Europe, Cuba, El Salvador and elsewhere. If we encounter a situation where we don't speak the patient's language, we call a medical interpreter service, Pacific Interpreters. They speak about 200 languages, in medical terminology and are readily available.
Most importantly, the clinic has an arrangement with the nearby Dennis Pharmacy, located in the Professional Building, on 12th Street, to provide discounted prices on drugs, through a federal 340B program. Additionally the clinic provides a Pharmaceutical Assistance Program to help those with pharmaceutical needs who are on more long-term meds.
"These are mostly drugs for chronic illnesses," Smith said. "We help the patients get registered for this program, and we help the patients fill out the paperwork for their prescription, which can be very difficult for some. Of course, patients are always free to take their prescription to any pharmacy of their choosing."
As far as patient information goes, the LKCHC is in the process of digitizing all of its records for ease of use - and sharing with other doctors and hospitals as may be needed. The referrals from the Health Department are already in our system, and clinic staff members are working on digitizing the older archive files to streamline the process.
The only real complaints Smith and Covington have heard so far are quibbles about waiting times, as many busy clients are reluctant to make appointments, and simply show up to be seen.
"This place is unique because it's merging primary care with urgent care and chronic care patients, so that can sometimes lead to longer waits for some people," Covington said. "I like to think we've found a happy medium between the length of time seeing patients and the care we are providing, however the bottom line is, patients have to have patience."
Monroe County Health Department spokesman Chris Tittel is pleased that the LKCHC seems to be succeeding in its mission to "provide quality care that's affordable and accessible."
"We're really glad that people with health care needs, particularly people with low or no income, have a patient centered medical home that they can go to for the services they need," Tittel said. "And we love Dr. Covington. He has such a loyal following, that the fact that he was going to be the lead physician over there put people at ease who were being transitioned to Rural Health Network. They didn't have to give up that tie with Dr. Covington."
Now that the clinic is up and running, Covington and Smith are excited about the future.
"Next up is OB and pediatrics, followed by hearing and vision," Smith said. "So far we've been able to sustain this health center. Now we're ready to expand it."
The Lower Keys Community Health Center is located at 1200 Kennedy Dr., second floor. For an appointment, or more information, call 305-517-6551.