At the Forefront of Community Health
The word “groundbreaking” can be used in two ways. One refers to the ceremony that notes the beginning of a new construction project and the other refers to something that is new or innovative.
La Clinica De Familia CEO Suzan Martinez de Gonzales couldn’t help but smile a bit over the use of the term when she discussed the upcoming opening of LCDF’s new site-based facility at Santa Teresa High School south of Las Cruces.
“We definitely had some hoops to jump through,” she said. “This is the first site-built school-based clinic in New Mexico. With federal funding involved, the land itself being owned by the State Department of Education, and the desires of the school district to have it not be just a modular building, it was quite an education. We even met with Governor Martinez about changing the language of the proposal. It was the first time this had been done so there was no example to follow.”
La Clinica De Familia has been breaking ground in Doña Ana County, both literally and figuratively, since 1976, when five employees in an 800 square-foot office began providing medical services as part of the Migrant Health initiative. (The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began creating community health centers in 1965 to provide medical services for migrant workers.) In 1979, the now-incorporated LCDF opened as a community and migrant health center in San Miguel, New Mexico.
Today, La Clinica serves over 23,000 individuals per year at seven medical, five dental, and three school-based clinics throughout Doña Ana County. And after “breaking ground” five months ago on that school-based facility in Santa Teresa, the ribbon cutting to celebrate its opening will be in February.
However, the most exciting news on the LCDF horizon doesn’t involve the “groundbreaking” for another new facility. It involves instead the revitalization and re-purposing – perhaps, in a way, the reincarnation – of the vacant City of Las Cruces offices/old Memorial General Hospital building at 575 Alameda in the city’s downtown area. At a renovation cost of around six to eight million dollars, the building will provide 44,000 square feet of much-needed space and will become the largest of La Clinica’s facilities. In addition to scheduled appointments, it will also provide 24-hour urgent care – where patients can be treated for many different conditions but is much less expensive than going to the emergency room. The anticipated opening date is mid-2016.
The impact of this new clinic will be huge. It is projected that within the first three years the “old hospital” will serve 13,000 new patients and provide 147 new jobs for professional and support staff – ten physicians and advanced nurse practitioners, six dentists, one pediatric dentist, five dental hygienists, five behavioral health providers, and ancillary staff. That doesn’t count the twelve residents, who will participate through the Southern New Mexico Family Medicine Residency Program. Martinez de Gonzales stressed the importance LCDF places on being a learning health center.
“Not only do we want to give the residents post-graduate training they need, we want to keep them in the area,” she said. “ We want to get them by the heart strings so they remember the reason they got into medicine in the first place, which was to help people. Community medicine brings them back to that.”
The clinic is located directly across the street from the new City Transit Hub, which will make it easy for those patients without transportation to get to their appointments and get home.
“’No-shows’ are probably our biggest problem,” Martinez de Gonzales explained. “When we went to look at the building and I realized the buses were right across the street, I just had to stop and thank God.”
LCDF has long been associated with serving those in the area who cannot afford or have easy access to healthcare. Consequently, there is perhaps a perception that the quality of care is not comparable to other providers.
“I’ve heard people say that we don’t have ‘real’ doctors,” Martinez de Gonzales said. “Most of our providers are board certified and if you look in the phonebook I can show you many physicians who have been brought to the community by organizations such as La Clinica and Ben Archer (Health Center – another southern New Mexico community health center).”
“Believe me,” she said smiling, but quite firmly. “Our doctors are real.”
LCDF, stated quite simply, wants to be your family doctor. They provide primary care, which means the everyday health conditions that don’t need specialized treatment. Establishing a relationship with a physician and seeing them on a regular basis can help prevent many of those trips to the ER. Primary care providers are an important part of a working healthcare system. Most private insurance is accepted, as well as Medicare and Medicaid Centennial Care. No one is ever turned away for inability to pay.
Suzan Martinez de Gonzales is a cheerful bundle of energy who worked for La Clinica prior to eight years with the New Mexico Primary Care Association. This allowed her the opportunity to work with all the clinics throughout the state. But despite her qualifications and experience, she acknowledges the great responsibility that accompanies her position as well as the great need for quality healthcare in Doña Ana County – 44,000 of its residents are without a primary care provider.
She does not, however, like to talk about herself. She prefers to think that God has placed her on this chessboard, in the role and where she needs to be at this time.
“It’s not about me,” she concluded. “It’s not about Suzan Martinez de Gonzales. It’s about the 24,000 persons we serve every year.”
And that sort of attitude, for a CEO, could be…well, groundbreaking.