Written by Donald A. Promnitz
With small farming towns dotting the Central Valley, there is an ever-growing demand for health care in these communities that are often low-income and sometimes overlooked.
Headquartered in Parlier, United Health Centers of the San Joaquin Valley is working to address these needs. With 14 clinics across Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties, it sees 75,000 patients a year with 400,000 visits. Services include not only medical and dental, but also optometry, chiropractic and nutritional.
“It’s pretty much a one-stop shop,” said Colleen Curtis, CEO for United Health Centers. “Somebody comes in—a patient comes in with a need and we can take care of them.”
The network of one-stop shops continues to grow — nearly doubling in size in the last six years. There’s an anticipated opening for a new clinic in Sanger that combines dental, medical and optometry services under one roof. And on Friday, United Health Centers plans to break ground on a new Selma health clinic at 2705 S. Highland Ave. starting at 10 a.m.
And even if patients are physically unable to reach a clinic, United Health Centers goes the extra mile — literally.
“We have transportation — we will go out to folks’ homes, pick them up, bring them in for their appointments and take them back home,” Curtis said. “So for some elderly, some of the moms with kids, that’s a tremendous service and it’s totally free of cost.”
United Health Centers traces its origins back to a grassroots movement in the mid-1960s and early ‘70s when providers sought a way to provide care in rural areas.
“For the uninsured, and the uninsured and underserved,” Curtis said, “often by foot is how they got to see a physician or not get to see one at all.”
United Health Centers opened its first clinic in Orange Cove in 1971. Since then, it has opened more than a dozen others. The recent growth — like other federally qualified health centers — is partly attributed to funding provided by the Affordable Care Act.
“When we talk about [expansion] in general terms, we talk about how much the Affordable Care Act helped all organizations like ours across the country,” said David Phillips, community and staff development officer for United Health Centers “giving different kinds of grants to expand capabilities to meet the expected influx of patients with the Medi-Cal expansion.”
This expansion has meant the option for health care for thousands who otherwise may not have been treated.
“We still take care of the uninsured. On average, we’re referred to as a ‘safety net.’ That means that if they come in through our doors, we will see them,” Curtis said. “And for most folks, it’s such a nominal rate—unheard of. They can come in for $20 whether it’s medical, dental, whatever.”
The conditions treated vary, with many health issues related to poverty present.
“Every day is a new day for me. I see a lot of different disease processes… a lot of poverty, the many things doctors see now,” said Dr. Robert Shankerman, chief medical officer for United Health Centers in Parlier. “I’m also an HIV specialist, so I have a little subset of patients that I see, and HIV is definitely a disease that’s still around. The biggest diseases I see are diabetes, elevated blood pressure and obesity.”
United Health Centers has made additional partnerships in communities as well. This has included providing glasses for children, as well as educational programs. They have also been collecting supplies for the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Meanwhile the center continues to grow with no sign of slowing down.
“It seems that wherever we open and hire physicians, we fill up — patients are finding their way to us and we’re meeting their needs, and they’re telling their friends, neighbors and family, and we’re here to take care of them,” Curtis said. “So as long as the need keeps growing, we intend to keep growing with it to try to meet that need.”