Sticking to the Model: A Free Health Clinic on the South Side Braces for an Unclear Future

 /  March 9, 2017, 11:58 a.m.


Five blocks west of the I-94 Express on West 63rd Street, CommunityHealth's Englewood office fears for the future.

This medical center, opened in 2010, is a satellite branch of CommunityHealth, the largest volunteer clinic in the country. Founded in 1993, CommunityHealth began in response to a common problem: the overuse of emergency rooms for routine medical care. Its founder, Dr. Serafino Garella, observed that Chicago ERs were flooded with patients receiving treatment that could be administered by a primary care provider. Realizing that the cause of this ER overload was a lack of insurance, Garella, along with a few friends, bought a storefront property in West Town and opened up a part-time clinic. Twenty-five years later, this clinic, now known as CommunityHealth, serves over 10,500 patients annually. It continues to provide comprehensive healthcare to uninsured individuals with incomes at or below 250 percent of the poverty line. While its main office remains in West Town, the Englewood branch has expanded significantly since its inception seven years ago. Now operating part-time five days a week, the office relies primarily on volunteer physicians and health educators from nearby universities who work alongside several full-time staff members.  

Among CommunityHealth’s full-time staff is Vickie Chester, the Englewood office’s patient services manager. Chester first joined the clinic as a volunteer in 2012 while she was still in school at Kennedy King College, just up the street on Halsted. She “loved the model,” and was inspired by the notion that “anyone could come through our doors.” Five years later, she remains an energized advocate for the organization, citing her belief that “everyone should have access to essential healthcare” as the driving force behind her continued work.

Dolores Garcia, a thirty-four-year-old Englewood resident, is “grateful” for that work. A patient of the clinic, she found CommunityHealth last December after losing her job and the health coverage that came with it. While she was able to regain employment, her new job did not provide health insurance, and after looking at Affordable Care Act options Garcia concluded that private plans were too expensive and “started googling” free clinics in the area. While she needed comprehensive care, Garcia admits that she was not expecting much, but after coming to CommunityHealth for over three months, she raves that the staff “gives me the same exact care” as a regular medical center. More than anything else, though, Garcia says she appreciates the respect that her doctors show her, telling the Gate that they “treat me well as a patient” and “there is no judgement for why I’m here.”  

Mr. Locco, a fifty-seven-year-old resident of South Shore, is similarly “happy to be here.” A Ghanaian immigrant, Locco has never had health insurance, and never received routine medical care until six months ago, when he suffered a heart attack that put him in the University of Chicago’s emergency room. After treating him, ER doctors referred him to CommunityHealth to receive monthly checkups and preventative prescription drugs. Half a year later, Locco’s condition is stable and he says he “thanks God” for CommunityHealth and its staff.

Despite these success stories, Chester, when asked about CommunityHealth’s future, shared the anxiety of similar clinics across the country. Remarking that the ACA had a “huge impact, especially here [at the Englewood office],” she recalled how many former patients gained coverage under the law. While she emphasized that “our doors will be open” regardless of what happens, she confirmed that a repeal of the health-care law could have repercussions for CommunityHealth and its patients. Chester acknowledged that as a clinic that depends on volunteers to provide care and on donations for most of its prescription pharmaceuticals, CommunityHealth has “lots of restrictions,” and that the potential flood of uninsured individuals that might accompany an ACA repeal could result in “longer wait times” for new patients.  

More than anything else, though, Chester “wishes we could be proactive and not reactive.” With no replacement plan in sight, CommunityHealth and its team are forced to prepare for an unknown health-care landscape. As Chester sighed at the end of her interview with the Gate, “honestly there is so much uncertainty … it would be nice to have a glimpse of what’s next.” For now though, she sees the path forward as clear: while “we’re all wanting to know what’s next … we just have to stay true to our model.”

The image featured in this article is courtesy of CommunityHealth.

Jacob Toner Gosselin

Jacob Gosselin is a fourth-year majoring in Math and Economics and minoring in Creative Writing. He is interested in health policy and criminal justice reform. He's currently working as a data journalist with Injustice Watch, a non-profit newsroom in Chicago. He's previously interned at the Brookings Institution's Center for Health Policy, and the Kaiser Family Foundation. On campus, Jacob is the Captain of the Varsity Cross Country and Track teams, and was the Managing Editor of The Gate from 2017-2018. He enjoys reporting on local issues, running with his friends, and tutoring at Chavez Middle School with the Chicago Peace Corps.


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