The city of Portland will close down its Health Care for Homeless Clinic after its federal grant expires later this year, putting dozens of people out of work and potentially leaving hundreds of homeless people without access to regular health care.
The city’s federal grant, which makes up a third of the clinic’s $1.8 million budget, expires at the end of April. But officials are seeking additional federal funding to keep the clinic open longer, perhaps until the end of 2014.
“We feel we need more time to transition all of our patients,” City Manager Mark Rees said.
The city clinic serves 2,300 people a year and has relied on the $680,000 grant as the foundation of its financing.
The grant was awarded this year to an alternative nonprofit clinic, the Portland Community Health Center. The loss of the federal money means the city’s clinic cannot operate even in a reduced capacity, Rees said.
As many as 12 full-time and 24 part-time employees will lose jobs when the clinic at 20 Portland St. closes, Rees said.
“We unfortunately had to provide them with notices that they’re getting laid off,” said Rees, who said the city is helping those employees find other jobs.
The grant requires Portland Community Health Center to serve at least 1,000 patients during its first year. It needs to serve at least 2,000 patients in the second year and at least 2,500 in the third year, according to Kathleen Stokes, the president of the Portland Community Health Center board of directors.
City officials and physicians are worried that as many as 1,300 vulnerable patients will fall through the cracks until the health center reaches its third year.
“We see this as a community problem. It’s not the problem of one organization,” Stokes said. “The city is key to the success of all this. They have the experience and they want it to work, too.”
The City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee took up the issue Tuesday evening.
City Councilor John Coyne, who serves on the committee, said some councilors were frustrated on Tuesday night because they couldn’t get detailed issues on the transition plan, since Portland Community Health Center Chief Executive Officer Leslie Brancato was unable to attend the meeting.
“It got a little bit hairy at times,” Coyne said. “I think there are some hard feelings there.”
City Councilor Cheryl Leeman, the committee’s vice chairman, said the time has come to put the rancor of the grant process aside and focus on working collaboratively to serve as many people as possible.
“It’s our most vulnerable population,” Leeman said. “We need to transition and make it a positive experience for all of these clients.”
Chairman Edward Suslovic did not return phone calls for comment.
The city has operated the Health Care for Homeless Clinic for 20 years. It has received the federal grant without competition since 2009.
That changed last year when the city made a clerical error in its application. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services opened up the application process to other entities and ultimately awarded the grant to the Portland Community Health Center.
The city alleges that health center, which was established by the city and spun off as a separate nonprofit, violated an agreement not to compete with the city for that funding. But the health center counters that it only applied after the city was turned down.
There is no process for the city to appeal the grant decision. The city has filed a formal public records request for the Portland Community Health Center application in hopes of understanding how its plan to serve 1,000 people beat the city’s plan to serve 2,300 at the homeless clinic.
Corporation Counsel Danielle West-Chuhta said the city has not yet received that information.
Mayor Michael Brennan told the Press Herald that information could be used to file a legal challenge, but West-Chuhta played down that possibility.
Susan Clement is a nursing instructor at the University of Southern Maine Nursing School, who takes students to the city health clinic once a week. She is concerned some people will fall through the cracks.
Clement told the Press Herald on Wednesday that homeless people discharged from the hospital are dropped off at the Preble Street Resource Center by cab. Having the homeless clinic across the street has ensured that those patients receive the follow-up care they need.
“Sometimes our clients are unsteady on their feet for a variety of reasons. Now they’ll have to get all the way down to the Parkside clinic,” across from King Middle School, a half-mile away, Clements said.
Russell Hastings, a 33-year-old homeless man, said he’s most concerned about not being able to get the same range of services at the new clinic.
The city’s homeless clinic currently provides primary, oral and behavioral health care to homeless patients.
According to the city’s Department of Health and Human Services 2013 annual report, 1,421 clients received primary care, 1009 received oral care and 586 received behavioral health care.
Hastings said he uses the clinic about once a week, getting dental care, going to see a counselor and getting care whenever he was sick.
The Portland Street clinic was convenient, he said, because it’s right across the street from the Preble Street Resource Center, which offers other help to the homeless.
But, he said, he’ll adjust to a new location if it offers the services he needs.
“It’s just a little walk I guess,” he said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org