Health & Medicine

Community health center planned for Sacramento’s Johnson High

When 60-year-old Rose Williams needs medical care, she walks about 2 miles from her home near Hiram Johnson High School in Sacramento.

“I always have to go to the primary care clinic on Broadway,” said Williams, who wears a neck brace from a recent fall and said she struggles with other maladies. “I’m too sick to walk all that way.”

Starting in January, Williams won’t need to walk more than a few blocks – to the high school – to receive primary medical care at the Sacramento region’s first school-based community health center, one that could serve as a model for future sites.

WellSpace Health, in partnership with Sacramento City Unified School District, plans to upgrade 2,800 square feet of former student clinic space with a $500,000 grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration.

The improved center will serve students as well as members of the surrounding south Sacramento community with a full range of primary care services. It will also offer preventative dental care, dental X-rays, behavioral health services and counseling. The center will have separate entrances for students and members of the public.

“For a lot of families economically strained, it’s hard to get to medical providers,” said WellSpace CEO Jonathan Porteus. A school-based clinic is geographically accessible, he said, “especially for people with transportation challenges.”

The demographics of Hiram Johnson’s 95820 ZIP code show the need. One in four residents lives in poverty – a rate more than 50 percent higher than the countywide poverty rate, according to census data.

The mortality rate from diabetes in the area is roughly 55 percent higher than the countywide average, according to Valley Vision, a local nonprofit focused on economic, environmental and social issues. The mortality rate from heart disease is 45 percent higher than the countywide average. And life expectancy within the ZIP code is roughly five years less than the statewide life expectancy, according to Valley Vision’s latest community health needs assessment.

The center is expected to serve about 2,000 people a year, Porteus said. “It would get 7,000 to 8,000 visits (annually) if we were humming.” WellSpace currently serves about 26,000 patients through a network of community health centers in Sacramento.

The project has been a long-time goal that resurfaced after the federal grant became available. On Sept. 4, trustees are expected to exempt the center from the city’s residential zoning restrictions, after which WellSpace can seek a construction permit from the city.

Sacramento schools trustee Jeff Cuneo, who represents the Hiram Johnson area, said he saw the opportunity for the proposal to be a model for other schools.

“It shows how we can collaborate with a community organization to improve the health and welfare of the communities we serve,” Cuneo said.

Barbara Kronick, director of the district’s student support and health services, said there is a national movement toward school-based community health centers, and the numbers statewide are on the rise. Porteus said it makes sense to establish clinics at schools because they serve as a natural hub for communities.

“I think at this stage, we’re ready to sort of get this one opened and learn from this experience,” Kronick said, “so if we decide to move forward, we do it judiciously.”

Porteus said he has talked to district officials about possible community health centers based at both Luther Burbank High School on Florin Road and the Arthur A. Benjamin Health Professions High School near the Marina Vista public housing complex in Sacramento.

“We’re looking at what the opportunities are to bring up the next generation of people working in the health professions,” he said.

Williams was happy that medical care will be closer to her home. She and her sister, 64-year-old Mary Diaz, take turns caring for their 86-year-old mother, who lives about a half-mile southeast of the campus.

“This is a real convenience,” she said as she guided her 16-month-old grandchild Mikkialong the sidewalk in a red and yellow push-car.