PORTLAND – Zahraa Alkhaleeli checked out the new Portland Community Health Center clinic at Riverton Park apartments Thursday, and while a tour of the small, three-room clinic didn’t take long, she said having a medical facility in Riverton should help improve the health of the neighborhood.

“There are a lot of families here with a lot of kids,” said Alkhaleeli, who immigrated from Iraq about five years ago and is now a biology student at Southern Maine Community College. “It’s hard for a lot of people, because they can’t get a ride to downtown to go to the doctor.”

The clinic, designed to serve low-income and immigrant populations in the Riverton neighborhood, held a grand opening Thursday and will open to patients on June 27. The clinic is located in the public housing apartments, but will be open to anyone who meets eligibility requirements — including the uninsured and those who qualify for MaineCare.

The new clinic is funded through a three-year, $1.3 million federal grant landed by the University of New England under the Affordable Care Act. The grant also covers a number of educational and training initiatives at the university. Funding the clinic accounts for about 25 percent of the total grant, said Jen Morton, interim director of the nursing department at UNE.

Even though the grant runs out in three years, the Portland Community Health Center, a local nonprofit, will find a way to keep it operating, said Leslie Brancato, who runs the health center.

While Portland Community Health Center will operate the clinic, it’s part of a partnership with UNE, the city of Portland, Portland Housing Authority and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention — Cumberland Public Health District.

UNE nursing students will assist a nurse-practitioner, medical assistant, social workers and outreach workers staffing the clinic. The clinic will initially be open Mondays and Thursdays, but officials believe it will eventually expand to five days. The clinic will offer primary care services, flu shots, immunizations and sports physicals, Brancato said. “We expect there will be a lot of business, and we will add more days as the need arises,” she said.

The clinic should improve access to health care, saving residents, many of whom don’t have a car, from making what can be a 30-minute trip downtown during high traffic times, Brancato said.

Peter O’Donnell, former Portland mayor and city councilor, came up with the idea as part of a research project when he was earning a master’s degree at UNE about two years ago. O’Donnell was conducting a health survey at Riverton Park when he noticed that it was difficult for people to obtain primary care, even if they were covered under MaineCare.

O’Donnell said he thought a health clinic might fill the need, and when he mentioned it to residents there was “resounding enthusiasm” for the idea.

“Everywhere I went, no one told me it was a bad idea,” O’Donnell said. “Every door kept getting opened for us.”

Brancato said aside from transportation, having health professionals on site to get to know the residents should help improve lifestyles. “Our health is so much more than a result from a lab,” she said. “It’s our entire person.”

Brancato said being stationed at Riverton Park should also help health care workers understand how different cultures view health care. More than 80 percent of the apartment dwellers are refugees from countries such as Somalia, Sudan and Iraq, she said. And, the Riverton area of the city has a high concentration of refugees.

 

Joe Lawlor can be reached at 791-6376 or at:

jlawlor@pressherald.com

Twitter: @joelawlorph