By Todd Cohen
CHARLOLTTE, N.C. — Community Health Services expected to serve 25,000 clients last year who could not find or afford health care.
That was at least two-and-half times the number of clients the nonprofit agency served five years ago, growth that reflects a nagging social problem, says Jen Algire, executive director.
“It says people don’t have access to affordable health care,” she says.
With a staff of 21 people, plus four contract workers, the agency serves as a “preventive-services safety net” for Mecklenburg County, Algire says, supplementing basic health services the county provides and connecting its clients to primary care.
Grants, private fundraising, fees for services and funds from United Way of Central Carolinas each accounts for roughly one-fourth of the group’s annual budget of $1.7 million.
Over the past five years, based on a shift in its funding strategy, the agency has reduced its reliance on United Way funding and increased its private fundraising, Algire says.
For the current fiscal year, to celebrate its 50th anniversary, Community Health Services plans to raise $300,000, Algire says.
Those dollars support six programs, and new initiatives also are in the works, Algire says.
The agency’s three nurses and nurse practitioner, for example, provide hands-on care, specialty care, education and support at 22 community centers and nonprofits.
The agency also provides physicals, immunizations and preventive screenings, mainly for people who lack access to primary care, in a new clinic at its offices in the Children and Family Services Center uptown, which houses 10 nonprofits serving families and children.
A third program provides free dental care to 500 children, and dental education and prevention programs to another 1,000, and aims to double those numbers in the fiscal year that ends June 30.
In August, the agency launched a new program, known as “Reach out and read,” that combines children’s visits to pediatrician offices with the distribution of free books to promote developmental screening and literacy.
In another new program, funded with the agency’s first grant ever from the public-private Smart Start early-childhood-development program, agency nurses visit child-care centers and perform assessments to help the centers improve their health-and-safety ratings.
And under a contract with the Mecklenburg County Medical Society, the agency manages and serves as the back office for Physicians Reach Out, a program in which over 900 physicians volunteer to provide free care to clients with no health insurance.
Community Health Services screens clients, determines their eligibility and assigns them to physicians.
Now, the agency is planning to expand its clinic programs for people lacking primary care or a regular source of care.
It also is conducting a marketing campaign, using billboards and radio ads, to promote good oral health and dental care.
While Community Health Services has worked hard to keep up with rising demand, Algire says, that is not the kind of progress it should be making.
“If we’re doing our job well, like all safety-net providers, we should be able to put ourselves out of business,” she says. “But instead, every year we just get more clients.”