In the waiting room at the Suffolk County Health Center at East Hampton on Friday afternoon, two girls colored in books at a corner table near brochures about whooping cough, printed in both English and Spanish.
In the parking lot outside, a family of four—Santiago, who gave his surname only as “G,” his wife, Rosa, and their children, Matheo, 7, and toddler David—closed the creaky trunk of their Honda Civic and strolled toward the entrance for Rosa’s doctor’s appointment.
This public health clinic—a modest white building on woodsy Accabonac Road that county officials say treated 920 individual patients last year, many of whom are poor and uninsured—is where the “G” family of East Hampton comes for care.
But it is slated for closure near year’s end, along with the Kraus Family Health Center at Southampton. In place of these two county-run clinics, a new health center on the Southampton Hospital campus is set to open early in 2014 under a federal model, with longer hours and more services, including dental and mental health care.
Santiago, 34, was stunned to learn from a reporter on Friday that the East Hampton clinic would be shuttered, in effect moving its services to Southampton Village, and lamented the extra time it would take to get there.
“That’s no good, because we’re here,” he said, shaking his head, his son, David, in his arms. “Especially in summer, traffic is crazy. That’s gonna be tough.” He also expressed concern about possible crowding at the new clinic, which will serve clients from both towns.
Another visitor to the clinic, Jeffrey Gastillo, 20, who drove his 14-year-old sister, Jamie, to pick up paperwork on Friday, said he had not heard about the pending closure, which was approved by the County Legislature earlier this month. “It’s easier for us to come here,” the Sag Harbor resident said, adding that trekking to Southampton would be a greater burden. The Gastillos use the clinic, they said, because of its low cost.
Several other patients were also shocked by the news and expressed disappointment, though often limited English skills did not allow them to elaborate.
County officials say the closure of the clinics and the opening of the new one will save $3.8 million over five years, while offering more services and weekend hours. The new center will be run by Hudson River HealthCare (HRHCare), a Peekskill-based not-for-profit Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) in a public-private partnership with the county, hospital and Stony Brook University Medical Center. FQHCs offer preventative and primary health care services regardless of ability to pay.
The new clinic will occupy what is now the Southampton Hospital annex on Meeting House Lane in Southampton Village, following renovations. It is also set to become a residency training site for 15 primary care physicians, said Anne Kauffman Nolon, president and CEO of HRHCare, which took over a county clinic in Coram last year and has another center in Greenport.
The East Hampton-Southampton merger is to be financed through grant money set to expire at the end of 2013, and the county is to pay HRHCare $3.9 million over five years beginning in 2014. Southampton Hospital has committed $700,000 in grant money to partially fund the annex retrofit.
“It’s really a joint project among all of us to expand health care services,” said Ms. Kauffman Nolon, adding that clinics are a foundation of the federal Affordable Health Care Act, as more patients become insured. The service will be “seamless” as the two clinics close and the new one opens, she said.
As for transportation, a big concern among those in East Hampton, she and Dr. James Tomarken, the commissioner for the County Department of Health Services, said a two-week evaluation showed that more than 70 percent of East Hampton clinic patients arrived there by car. Nevertheless, HRHCare will provide a van to transport patients back and forth between the soon-to-be-former clinic and the new one. It will also hire a taxi service for special or high-need patients. In addition, a county bus route already stops at Southampton Hospital.
Bob Chaloner, hospital CEO and president, called the move an exciting venture and noted that clinics are not well integrated into the health care system, with limited access to records after-hours, for example.
One opponent to the plan, however, is Catherine Casey, the executive director of the East Hampton Housing Authority, the landlord for the East Hampton clinic’s building. She opined that the current facility could get expanded hours at a lower cost than that of a whole new clinic.
“And, obviously, this population is most vulnerable,” she said. “I think it’s causing a real hardship.”