Last week, City officials announced that Evanston’s new federally qualified health center will offer pediatric care, family medicine and dental care to low-income and uninsured Evanston and Skokie residents beginning on Oct. 22. The announcement was made at an Aug. 8 kick-off event held at the Lorraine H. Morton Civic Center at which community leaders celebrated the $650,000 annual federal grant obtained by Erie Family Health Center to operate the new clinic, which will be located temporarily at the Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave.

The Erie Evanston health center is expected to serve at least 5,000 people annually, said Dr. Lee Francis, president of Erie Family Health Center. The organization has 11 other clinics in Chicago and more than 50 years of experience providing community health care. “[The Evanston clinic] represents a perfect fit within our organization’s mission, which is to provide affordable, accessible and high-quality care to those in need,” Dr. Francis said. “Erie Evanston health center will be accessible by public transportation. We’ll provide services in Spanish and other languages, and meet Erie’s nationally recognized quality standards. And no one will be turned away due to inability to pay.”

The grant is one of 219 issued nationwide for federally qualified health centers and one of 11 in the state of Illinois. Evanston received the maximum amount, said Evanston Health Director Evonda Thomas. Ms. Thomas spearheaded the City’s effort, which took two years because it was denied funding the first time around.

“I think the tenacity of the City … really did make a difference,” said U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, who, along with Senator Dick Durbin’s office, helped push the project through the federal bureaucracy in Washington D.C. She added, “From a personal standpoint, this makes the job worthwhile. Right now it’s pretty difficult in Washington, but I come home to great celebrations like this. So it’s really gratifying.”

The statistics show a significant need in the community. More than 25 percent of Evanston and Skokie residents are considered low income and uninsured, said Dr. Francis, with some areas having a 75 percent concentration of residents who qualify for the new center’s services.  

In 2007, the area’s affordable health care options were reduced further when the City Council elected to cut most of the direct health care services offered by the City’s Public Health Department, which was the oldest in the state.

“Worst vote I ever voted,” said Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl, who was an alderman at the time.

For the new clinic, the City will donate the temporary space at the Civic Center, Mayor Tisdahl said, and will also contribute “at least $100,000 in annual fundraising” to the project. The fundraising will be directed by a committee and is required by the federal grant, she said.

With the area’s limited options for affordable health care, many uninsured residents currently use local hospital emergency rooms as their source for primary care, said Dr. Francis. Local hospital systems such as Northshore University Health System, which operates Evanston Hospital, often bear this costly burden.

J.P. Gallagher, president of NorthShore University HealthSystem Evanston Hospital, said the Northshore System performs more than $124 million in unreimbursed care annually. Mr. Gallagher announced at the kick-off that the health system will donate $1.8 million to the project, most of which will go toward the construction of the clinic’s permanent home, the location of which has yet to be determined but is expected to open in 2013.

Mr. Gallagher said he “recognized that a new location, a new facility, was going to require some capital … and we thought our contribution would be best put towards the construction and development of the center.”

The permanent location will offer a full range of medical and behavioral health services, as well as dental care and case management, for Evanston and Skokie’s low-income and uninsured residents.

“This will be their medical home. They’ll have a doctor here. It’ll be consistent and less expensive. They won’t end up going to the Northshore emergency room. It’s just great. This is a model,” said Congresswoman Schakowsky.