An influx of uninsured patients has put pressure on Ashland's Community Health Center, but an influx of stimulus funds is expected to help the center be more effective.

An increase in uninsured patients has put added pressure on Ashland's Community Health Center, but an influx of stimulus funds is expected to help the center meet those demands.

"We've seen a steady rise in the number of uninsured patients who are requesting health care," said Peg Crowley, executive director of the health center. "The tough economic times have made it harder for more people to afford health care. The economic climate has also affected the ability of many of our (financial) donors to give."

The health center is a nonprofit entity that generates 60 percent of its revenue from patient fees and relies on a mixture of private and public funds for the rest of its expenses. Over the past 10 years, the city has granted between $28,000 and $35,000 to the center.

It was founded in Ashland in 1972, and branches opened in Medford in 1983 and White City in 1997, according to Crowley.

Recently, the center received $600,945 in federal stimulus money. The capital improvement grant was awarded by the Department of Health and Human Services.

"We're going to use a large portion of the grant to put in place an electronic health care records system," Crowley said. "Such a system will improve the quality and effectiveness of the care we offer."

The remaining portion of the funds will be used to expand the White City facility, Crowley said.

In April, the center received other stimulus money that it's using to retain its current staff level, Crowley said. "We had already laid off some people."

Ashland origins

When it started in 1972, the center was called the Ashland Women's Health Center. Its first location was a rented space above what is now the Mix sweets shop on the plaza.

In 1977, the center changed its name to the Ashland Community Health Center.

In the early 1980s, the center moved to a 930-square-foot cottage on Fourth Street in the Railroad District. It stayed there for 17 years.

In the late 1990s, as the result of a community-based fund-raising effort, the center was able to move into and purchase its current facility at 99 Central Ave.

"Regardless of its name, the center has always seen anyone who's needed care," Crowley said. "Presently, we see male and female patients of all ages, and we're accepting new patients, including new Medicare patients."

Doctors Marie Wehage and Robert Eckert work at the Ashland facility.

"Our patients are very appreciative," Eckert said.

"We won't turn anyone away because of their inability to pay at the time of their visit," said Katy Cowan, a nurse at the center since 1987. "We are not a free clinic. We ask all persons to contribute to the cost of their care. We offer a generous sliding-fee scale for those who are uninsured and under-insured. We have outreach workers to help our patients try to find public sponsored insurance, especially for children."

The staff is also adept at finding medical programs for which patients may qualify, Cowan said.

"We're not giving people a hand-out, we're giving them a hand-up," Crowley said.

Thirty-two-year-old Ashland resident and Rogue Community College student Michael Harris, his 7-year-old son Austin and 3-year-old daughter Kora are patients at the Ashland center.

"I was diagnosed with diabetes when I was 8 years old," the elder Harris said. "It wasn't until I became a patient here that I was able to manage my diabetes. Before then, I was constantly in and out of the hospital. The health center staff took time to explain things to me so that I understood the importance of taking care of myself."

"Dr. Eckert is pretty good," Austin added.

Dr. Bill Southworth used to volunteer at the center and is now a board member.

"What started as a small grassroots volunteer community center has evolved into a top-notch primary care medical practice that offers integrated care including laboratory services, medical assistance programs, mental health care and access to speciality care," Southworth said. "If patients of the health center need care from a specialist, we're able to provide them with access to that care. Some specialists volunteer at the center and others are available through the VOLPACT program."

VOLPACT, which stands for Volunteers for Patient Access to Consultation and Treatment, was started in 1994 by Medford cardiologist John Forsyth.

"When I learned how many people in our community didn't have access to good health care. I felt something had to be done," Forsyth said.

The program Forsyth and his colleagues put together connects patients with doctors and hospitals. The community health center, along with other safety-net clinics such as La Clinica del Valle, are the initial point of connection to the doctors and hospitals. They also screen patients to make sure they're eligible for the program.

Debra McFadden, director of the Jackson County Medical Society, coordinates VOLPACT.

"All three Jackson County hospitals and close to 350 doctors participate in the program," she said.

In 2008, at Ashland Community Hospital, 20 VOLPACT patients received services valued at $160,000. From January to March of this year, 10 VOLPACT patients received treatment that had a total value of $50,000. Procedures patients received treatment for included a bone graft, intestinal surgery, an ankle sprain, lab work and chest X-rays.

"VOLPACT is effective," said Mark Marchetti, CEO of Ashland Community Hospital.

Marchetti explained that VOPACT often allows physicians to deal with medical issues when they're still non-critical and, by doing so, makes things less stressful for the patient and easier on the hospital's resources.

For more information about the community health center and its programs, see www.communityhealthcenter.org or call 482-9741.