Caught in a seemingly perpetual reach for the finish line, Cottage Grove’s Community Health Center project is slowly inching closer toward its financial goal.
Though around $4.5 million has already been committed to the project, rising costs have held off progress and created its current funding gap of $1.2 million.
Community health centers mainly serve those who have limited access to healthcare, though all are welcome to use them. As federally qualified health centers (FQHCs), they can qualify for public health funding and often offer a sliding fee scale for patients.
When the Cottage Grove clinic opens, it will be the seventh such site for Lane County.
The stated mission of the Community Health Centers of Lane County is to improve the health and wellness of the community through affordable, holistic healthcare.
The Cottage Grove project aims to incorporate such health services into the local Lane Community College (LCC) building on River Road.
Lane County opened its first community health center in 2004 in Springfield at the Riverstone Clinic and has added several other sites to that list since, though they are all in the Eugene-Springfield metro area.
Cottage Grove is to be home to the first rural community health center in the county.
Making the health center a reality has been a broad collaboration between many groups including LCC, Lane County, South Lane School District, Be Your Best, PeaceHealth and South Lane Mental Health. The Oregon Community Foundation and the YARG Foundation have also been heavily involved in funding.
The Cottage Grove clinic is intended to extend service the residents of Oregon’s South Lane and North Douglas counties.
A lengthy list of programs and services are planned for the center including pediatrics, family planning, alternative medical services, integrated oral health care, behavioral health, pharmacist consultations and maternal and child health programs.
The clinic will provide local students access to primary care and dental services and will employ more than 22 individuals when fully staffed. It will also function as a health and dental care training site for South Lane School District and LCC students.
It’s estimated to be able to provide access to primary care services for more than 5,000 patients in the community and surrounding area with four primary care practitioners at capacity.
Career laddering opportunities for higher wage jobs and hard-to-recruit health career categories are counted among the center’s potential economic impact locally.
The need for a health center is evident in the area, too.
The South Lane community ranks among the top two of Oregon’s highest need primary care services areas, as identified by the Office of Rural Health. The area is also designated as a “health professional shortage area” for primary and dental care by the Health Resources and Services Administration.
Federal dollars have recently been committed to finishing this project.
On March 9, Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio voted to deliver $17,945,000 in Community Project Funding he secured for communities in Oregon’s Fourth Congressional District.
The funding will help support local initiatives that invest in needs such as infrastructure, community health, education, homelessness prevention and wildfire resilience.
“These investments will have a profoundly positive impact on our district,” said Rep. DeFazio. “I am proud to have secured funding that makes our communities stronger, safer, and healthier.”
Among the 10 projects for which funding was secured, $1,500,000 was allocated for Lane County to establish Cottage Grove’s community health clinic.
At a Cottage Grove City Council meeting on March 14, representatives of the clinic project provided an update on its progress and spoke to its need for additional funding.
Jim Gilroy from Be Your Best presented information the council, with contributions from Lane County Health and Human Services Director Eve Gray.
Margaret Hamilton, president of Lane Community College, Brian McCasline, assistant superintendent of South Lane School District, and County Commissioner Heather Buch were also in attendance.
Gilroy attributed the gains made toward the clinic today to a city council decision many years ago to implement a strategic plan.
The city council adopted a resolution at its July 12, 2010, meeting supporting the designation of the Cottage Grove as a rural site for a Federally Qualified Health Clinic.
However, Gilroy said that many of the same issues that the city has experienced on projects are impacting the development of the South Lane Community Health Clinic.
“Had COVID not interrupted, we would have been open a year ago last January,” he said. “So think about the costs that have risen over that time period.”
Current plans are to break ground on the project in August and open doors by mid-winter or early spring, however there is still the $1.2 million gap. Gilroy said that when representatives updated the council on this project about a year ago, they had the fortunate problem of having too much money.
“Now it’s the opposite,” said Gilroy.
In light of this, Gilroy asked the city to contribute $100,000 toward the project.
“But anything the city could contribute to support the stakeholders in their efforts to provide the service for the community is going to be welcome,” he said.
Councilor reactions were mixed.
Councilor Greg Ervin asked if abortion services would be available, which Gray confirmed they would not.
Ervin then said that spending tax dollars should see some kind of return.
“Let’s not just make it a gift,” he said.
Councilor Mike Fleck said he viewed it as an investment in the health care needs of the community.
“Unfortunately, I know that Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates continue to drop all the time and so I can’t imagine this is going to be a profitable venture,” he said.
Councilor Candace Solesbee shared Ervin’s concerns.
She added that she worried about mental health services being provided in proximity to the Cottage Grove High School, which is right next door to LCC.
“That is a little bit of a stressor for me that I would want to explore a little bit more because we have children there,” she said. “Working and living downtown, I have seen some effects of South Lane Mental Health being downtown and so I struggle with some of their services moving next to our high school.”
On the other hand, Councilor Chalice Savage pointed to the potential for upward mobility that the educational aspect of the health center could provide.
“I thought about this as being an investment in a future for our kids,” she said. “Our kids are going to be able to have an education right there.”
Councilor Kenneth Roberts, though, echoed Solesbee’s concern about mental health services near the high school.
“There’s parts of this that I like and parts I’m a little worried about,” he said. “I think we still need to sit down and discuss some of it before moving forward with funds.”
Councilor Jon Stinnett posited that the clinic was a way of investing in preventative care, ultimately reducing emergency room visits.
Director Gray spoke to councilors’ concerns about behavioral health around the center.
“We don’t currently have needle exchanges in our primary care clinics. Most of the behavioral health services that would occur within the federally qualified health center would be what we call ‘integrated behavioral health,’” she explained. “So, someone comes in for primary care services, the primary care physician has 15 minutes with that person and recognizes that there’s a suite of other services that this individual needs. And that may also include behavioral health services, it may include poverty services, or homelessness.”
FQHCs do not turn patients away due to inability to pay.
“We know that behavioral health outcomes, mental health outcomes are associated with physical health outcomes. You can’t treat one without the other,” said Gray. “So, we integrate those models, and we have someone who can come in and provide some short-term therapy services for the individuals while we’re getting them connected to longer-term therapy. So that is generally the model we will be aiming for within the FQHC.”
Ervin said he wanted to be as responsible with the city’s money as possible and felt that $100,000 was too much.
Fleck pointed out that the city is receiving more than $2.3 million in ARPA stimulus funds and saw the $100,000 as a reasonable request.
As an informational item, no council action was taken on Monday regarding the donation.
The city council will be discussing funding priorities regarding its America Rescue Plan funds its March 28 meeting, where the community health center funding request may be considered.