It was not an official opening, ribbon cutting, or dedication, but in the face of all the bad news connected to fires and the surge in COVID-19, last Thursday’s tour of the future site of the Community Health Clinic in Cottage Grove was just the prescription everyone needed.

Invited officials, guests, and media gathered in front of the LCC Cottage Grove campus to see what is to come at the site next to Cottage Grove High School. Blue painter’s tape formed boxes to keep speakers and participants distanced properly, mask-wearing was achieved 100% participation, and people were studying architects’ plans as they awaited Congressman Peter DeFazio’s arrival. His team pulled in right on time and Lane County Health and Human Services Director Karen Gaffney stepped to the mic, commanding everyone’s attention.

It was a moment that at least two in the audience had been working steadily toward for what must have seemed like eternity.

Jackie Lester and Jim Gilroy of Be Your Best were among agencies and entities who are working together in creating Lane County’s first rural full-service and newest Community Health Center (CHC).

DeFazio was introduced by Gaffney, spoke with a clear command of the issues facing the local residents and their healthcare needs. He also came bearing gifts.

DeFazio announced that he had secured an appropriation of $1.5 million for the clinic that will nearly close the gap on what is needed to move forward on this much-needed community project. “It is working its way through the system and hopefully the funds will be available by October 1. But knowing Congress, it may be a little later in the fall.”

He also reminded those assembled how he had to fight to stop the closure of the local hospital due to it being too close to larger hospitals in the area (Eugene). “I fought to save small rural hospitals, serving populations with high healthcare needs,” he said. “We had to change the law.”

Representatives know their districts much better than the bureaucrats, DeFazio noted.

Before introducing DeFazio, Gaffney delivered opening remarks.

“Welcome all to this sneak peek at what will be the seventh Lane County federally qualified health center. It is all about partnerships that have come together and the grants that have been secured in making this nearly decade-long journey,” Gaffney said. She then recognized the representatives of the primary partners joined in this project: Lane County Board of Commissioners Chair Joe Berney, local County Commissioner Heather Buch, Dr. Margaret Hamilton, President of Lane Community College, Alicia Beymer, Chief Administrative Officer of PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center, University District and Cottage Grove Community Medical Center, Dr. Yvonne Curtis, Superintendent South Lane School District, Noah Zepeda, Executive Director South Lane Mental Health, Mayor Jeff Gowing and City Manager Richard Meyers of Cottage Grove, and as previously mentioned, Lester and Gilroy of BYB.

“This is not a grand opening and I want to acknowledge the tremendous fundraising effort that has gone into this project,” Gaffney said. “It would not be possible without the generous financial support from many sources, (including) Oregon Community Foundation Community Wellness Fund, PeaceHealth, YARG Foundation, PacificSource Health Plans, and many others. We are so close to the finish line now where we can begin construction

Gaffney also thanked “employees of both PeaceHealth and LCC for their long hours in planning and preparing for this day.” 

She then introduced DeFazio, who represents Oregon’s 4th District.

DeFazio echoed many of the conditions of healthcare in south Lane County outlined in last week’s Part I of this column (online: chronicle1909.com).

“If we can get to the problem facing South Lane and North Douglas counties of lacking direct access to primary care, both the individual and the taxpayer will benefit. The 5,000 residents of this region who don’t have the access to the type of preventative care that stops simple health problems from developing into acute care needs will be able to get the help they need and in the long run it will be a huge savings for tax dollars.” DeFazio emphasized the importance of dental care, one of the highest needs in our area. “The health of the mouth truly affects the overall body’s health,” he said. “Not having access to dental services leads to very high numbers of oral conditions showing up in the Emergency Room. It costs a lot more at the ER than to provide preventative dental care.

“This is just one of the hurdles people living 40 miles out face,” he continued. “If you add having to go to Eugene for the nearest CHC it makes the journey that much harder. This Health Center will focus on the whole body and be a one-stop service facility; kids, families, aging, maternal health, behavioral and mental health, and dental.”

Following DeFazio’s comments and joyous news on the funding, it was time to take the tour. We were told about a smart-phone app that provided a virtual 3-D experience of what selected areas of the future clinic will look like. There will be physical changes to the current building involving moving walls and repurposing rooms currently serving as classrooms, offices, and storage.

The tour, adhering to social distance guidelines, went from site to site hearing a brief presentation of services specific to that area while seeing a virtual projection of what that area will look like.

Included in the tour were the reception area, medical assistant station, primary care exam room, dental clinic, an area for the Integrated Behavioral Health Program, and the wayfinding systems that will guide clients through the CHC using colors, signage, landmarks and lighting. 

One area of special interest was the Lane County Women, Infants, & Children/Maternal Child Health (WIC/MCH). Here assistance will be provided to mothers and families from pregnancy to age three. A wide range of services will include nutrition education, breastfeeding assistance, nutritious foods, healthy pregnancies, new family support, and connecting to resources in the community. The WIC/MCH will be a big part of helping guide parenting and child development, leading to local babies to the best possible start to a healthy life in Lane and Douglas counties.

After having many questions answered and getting a good look at what is to come at the LCC Cottage Grove Center, the group moved outside and in small groups talked with the ease that has come from spending many hours collaborating through the monthly BYB meetings. The setting was familiar to all: The 1997 building was built through a bond measure and follows a presence of an LCC satellite campus in Cottage Grove since 1977.

I overheard Lester and Hamilton, the LCC president, reminiscing about their first meeting in Hamilton’s office, where Lester made her case for LCC’s participation in the CHC plan. It wasn’t a hard sell. Hamilton was passionate about health and had wanted to be a nurse since early childhood. After working in the field she realized she loved nursing but would love to teach the craft more.

Getting her PhD. in Nursing Education she served as professor and Dean of an Allied Health Program before moving into administration. 

Having the center located in the LCC building brought some gains for the college, too. Fluctuations in the economy and the growing popularity of online classes had left the campus underutilized. The CHC would also provide placements for clinical experience currently lacking in existing LCC health programs. Win/win is a hallmark of the type of relationships forged by BYB.

Referring to the LCC and Career Technical Training CTE educational pathways that will be incorporated into the clinic, several of the speakers referenced the future expansion of the aging population and the need for healthcare services. There will be a great demand for skilled healthcare workers in the future and the CTE aspect is exciting to SLSD Superintendent Curtis. 

“We are very much looking forward to being able to have input through community visioning about the program. It is exciting to have this happening right in our backyard,” she said. “The clinic itself will be a big benefit to our students and families, including our employees who mostly live in the area and send their kids to our schools. We will look forward to offering our students this CTE path to interesting, well-paying jobs right here serving local residents.”

Mayor Gowing, a big fan of CTE education, also commented on his high school experience with metal and mechanics shop classes, which he said gave him the skills to become a millwright, and thankful for those experiences.

Speaking for PeaceHealth, CAO Beymer noted that BYB had involved the hospital since the beginning. And although she is new to the community, she said she’s impressed with how well all the local agencies work together. That is one aspect of the Collective Impact method of solving big social problems. Lester had described how tricky it is to get so many organizations to be able to function together when they each have their own institutional boundaries, policies, and ways to do things. The big picture goal and having all the arrows pointed in the same direction is what allows “cross the boundaries”-type of solutions of helping residents to better health to emerge.

And according to Commission Chairman Berney health is a big deal in Oregon because in the national rankings the Beaver State still has a ways to go.

“We really want the clinic to be a success and to be a model for rural healthcare service. We voted 5-0 to get it going in 2019. The Lane County Commission seems to have shifted to a more consensus-based relationship. Now it’s more about the quality of the arguments rather than the volume.” Maybe Collective Impact has rubbed off on local politics.

Thank you Rep. DeFazio for securing the funding to help make the BYB dream come to life, one that will assist so many and allow our rural end of the county to have access to quality healthcare regardless of how they are situated.

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