By Samantha Joseph
MARTIN COUNTY - West Palm Beach-based Florida Community Health Centers will take over the administration of three local health department clinics beginning early next year.
Effective Jan. 1, the Martin County Health Department will no longer provide adult health, pediatric and prenatal/maternity services.
The move will not affect services to the 2,800 patients receiving care at the clinics, but is likely to result in job losses.
After the transition, the clinics will be able to care for an additional 2,000 patients, thanks to Community Health Centers' ability to accept payment for a broad range of insurance providers, said Molly Ferguson, that group's director of program development.
Administrators said the local health department faces a $1.2 million budget shortfall due to cuts in state and federal funding, which forced it to transition out of several services.
For the last year it has worked with Florida Community Health Centers to devise a strategy to continue operations. And two weeks ago, the board of county commissioners signed a lease agreement allowing the nonprofit to begin working at the department's Stuart headquarters, on Willoughby Boulevard, to prepare for the transition.
"We will be neighbors with the health department in their building," Ms. Ferguson said. "They have been put in a precarious situation by the legislator, and we appreciate them reaching out to us to provide primary care."
Florida Community Health Centers, established in 1976, runs a network of primary care health centers in South Central Florida. The group operates in several communities, including Indiantown, Okeechobee, Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie, Moore Haven, Pahokee and Clewiston.
"We wanted to make sure the patients still have a place to go. We don't want to frighten (them)," said Renay Rouse, public information officer for the Martin County Health Department.
"We want to make sure that everyone knows these services will continue to be provided here."
While Florida Community Health provides maternity services and primary care for adults and children, the health department will continue to offer several other services, including family planning, issuing birth and death certificates, providing dental care, HIV and STD testing and treatment and administering the WIC program.
"Patients should actually see very little change," Ms. Ferguson said. "They will probably see many of the same faces that they're used to seeing."
But not all employees will survive the transition. Come January, the clinics will have a staff of 27.
Florida Community Health Centers' representatives said the group has invited health department employees facing layoffs to apply for these positions.
At press time, health department reps would not specify how many employees faced layoffs, saying the state health department was still reviewing several positions.
"We're hoping there will be a smooth transition for our staff, as well," said Caroline Ann Wegener, director of nursing in the health department.
Meanwhile, health department staffers are spreading word about the administrative changes by posting flyers in service areas, mailing letters to patients and sending notifications via Medicaid and other insurers.
"I'm delighted this partnership is moving forward," said Commissioner Ed Fielding.
"The citizens of Martin County will certainly benefit from the services provided by Florida Community Health Centers' collaboration with Martin County's Health Department."