Officials offer peek into future community health center

Congressman Peter DeFazio spoke to stakeholders on Aug. 19 prior to a tour of the planned community health center on the Lane Community College campus.

Local leaders and stakeholders gathered at the Cottage Grove Lane Community College (LCC) campus last week to tour the site of what will become the area’s first rural community health center.

“When this clinic opens, it will be the seventh site for the Lane County community health centers,” said Karen Gaffney, director for Lane County Health and Human Services. “The exciting piece for us is that we are able to build on a successful model for community health centers in Lane County.”

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.

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.

The concept for Cottage Grove’s own health center has been tossed around for about a decade. The project aims to bring a single-site integrated health center offering primary, behavioral and oral health care to residents of both South Lane and North Douglas counties.

Making the health center a reality has been a broad collaboration between 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.

Besides targeting the rural population, the Cottage Grove project is also unique in that it is offering real- world learning and training for local high school and college students interested in health care careers, adding a CTE (Career and Technical Education) component to the project.

“The partnership with the school district and with Lane Community College is unique in that we’ll be able to do on-site career technical education, support, and really create pathways to improve our workforce,” said Gaffney.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic put a strain on the healthcare workforce, countrywide shortage concerns had been a long-standing issue.

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.

There are currently no plans to physically expand LCC to incorporate it all, however. The project instead is committing about two-thirds of the existing square footage to remodel the building into a health center and leaving the remaining to be used for classrooms and other LCC space.

On Aug. 19, local leaders including Congressman Peter DeFazio toured the building. DeFazio spoke to the crowd prior to the tour.

“The community health centers across the country are, I think, one of the best federal programs that’s been created in a very, very long time,” said DeFazio, who advocated for the establishment of the county’s Riverstone Clinic as well. “We can do community health centers, we can improve people’s lives, the outcomes, we can get to them early before it becomes an acute issue, and we save money.”

While the project has slowly but gradually been gathering funds for development, $1.5 million secured by DeFazio earlier this year will put the project within reach of its goal.

With an oral health clinic, the total estimated budget for the community health center is around $3.8 million. This April, project representatives reported that some $1.8 million was still needed before construction could begin.

Defazio’s $1.5 million is currently in the appropriations process and will have to wait until it is passed by Congress, possibly this October.

When all funds are raised, the architectural and construction phase will begin, which is estimated to take between eight and 10 months total. The goal is open doors sometime next year.

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.

“This is one of the most underserved areas for health care in the state of Oregon,” said DeFazio, highlighting the issue. “Lack of primary care and availability for people means that most of them wait till they’re really sick. And then they go to the emergency room. That costs a lot more, it’s less effective. Early intervention could have prevented the disease from developing to something that is going to be really harmful. … So ultimately, it saves money for families, for taxpayers, and it gives better health outcomes to have this clinic and regular access to a primary care doctor.”

The new community health center in Cottage Grove is 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.

During a presentation to the Cottage Grove City Council in April, representatives of the project said that approximately a quarter of Cottage Grove residents and almost half of families with children under five live below the federal poverty line.

As well as providing services and technical education locally, it’s hoped the health center will have a positive economic impact by introducing opportunities for higher wage jobs, providing relief from indigent care spending (South Lane Mental Health spends up $250,000 to $300,000 annually) and keeping thousands of residents using FQHC sites local rather than making trips to the Eugene/Springfield area.

DeFazio praised the community’s collaboration in seeing the project become realized.

“We don’t have a lot of that going on these days as it relates to healthcare in this country, but it is a day to celebrate for this community and for the people of the surrounding area,” he said.

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