The doors closed on a Friday afternoon after more than four decades of offering primary health care to the West Grove neighborhood.
The Helen B. Bentley Family Health Center, operating in a former warehouse at the tip of a busy intersection off Southwest 37th Avenue, closed on April 5 after losing federal funding.
The once-bustling nonprofit clinic now has only a skeletal staff finalizing the end of the health care practice. At one point, the clinic served 300 patients a day, mostly low-income and uninsured from the neighborhood.
“This is a huge loss when you consider there are generations of patients in the community,” said President and CEO Caleb Davis, who has been in charge of the clinic for 33 years.
“When I came here, there were toddlers and young children who are now parents and grandparents, some bringing their own children here. Unfortunately, with the loss of the funds, declining resources and patients, we can’t keep the doors open any longer.’’
The center’s leadership is hosting a public meeting 6 p.m. Monday at the clinic, 3090 SW 37th Ave., to share with the community the details of the closing as well as how patients can smoothly transition to a new health provider.
On May 6, Community Health of South Florida is scheduled to open the first of two new centers in the area. The healthcare chain, already operating seven centers, will open at 3831 Grand Ave., initially offering family medicine, pediatrics and ob-gyn services.
A second clinic at 6350 Sunset Drive is scheduled to open in June.
Last fall, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) informed the clinic it was ending approximately $1.9 million in federal funding at the end of the year – nearly a quarter of the $8 million annual budget -- because of what it determined was a failure to comply with “Financial Management and Control Policies” rules.
The funding was discontinued because of compliance issues, not because of fraud or inappropriate funding, according to a federal spokesperson.
Two other grants were not renewed or had the amount reduced. The clinic lost an approximately $500,000 federal grant for HIV/AIDS services, which was not renewed in January. The combination of losses left the clinic operating with a measurably smaller budget.
After the federal agency’s decision, the clinic cut staff and some services to try to save the operation but it wasn’t enough. And with about $3.8 million in debt, including the mortgage and outstanding business expenses, officials are now looking to sell the facility and equipment. After a competitive bid, the federal monies were granted to Community Health of South Florida, which also will operate the two clinics in Coconut Grove and South Miami and 11 school-based healthcare programs in the area, said Brodes Hartley, Jr., president and CEO of Community Health.
“All of this terribly impacted our ability to operate. We reduced staff and contracts by approximately 50 percent. We had a moratorium on travel. We suspended some services,’’ Davis said. “But with the declining resources and revenue and the debt we were incurring, it was just disastrous. We could not recover.’’
The healthcare facility, which saw about 16,000 patients annually, opened in 1970 at Elizabeth Virrick Park, part of a federal effort to support community health centers designed to serve needy patients and to provide training for jobs in healthcare service. Based in neighborhoods, the centers gave residents access to affordable heath care and reduced the number of expensive emergency room visits. In that way, the clinics were also acting as first-responders.
“They were designed to be a one-stop shop, a place where they could address primary care, but also early identification of chronic diseases and also play a role in preventative care,’’ said Dr. Cheryl Holder, an associate professor at Florida International University’s Department of Humanities and Health and Society. “For example, you could identify and treat diabetes before you are having to deal with heart attacks, amputations, dialysis.’’
In 1992, the clinic moved from the cramped space into a new $3.2 million, 24,000 square-foot center, including new equipment and eventually 22 examination rooms. Five years ago, it was renamed in honor of Helen Bentley, a nurse and popular community activist. At its peak, there were nearly 100 employees including doctors and nurses. Services included pediatrics, dentistry, behavioral health and optometry. And nearly 40 percent of the budget was generated from fees charged to patients on an income-based sliding scale.
“You could come here and see your family doctor,’’ Davis said, “but also you could get a new pair of glasses or get your teeth cleaned.’’
Eugenia Crawford, a mother of four, has used the center since she was pregnant for her first born, now 12 years old.
“This place has been there for me from the beginning. All my children went there to get their check-ups, shots and when they were sick,’’ said Crawford, 31, of Coconut Grove. “They really took care of my family.’’