New Community Health Center breaks ground

By:  Matt Sutkowski
Burlington Free Press

The groundbreaking Monday morning for an expanded Community Health Center in Burlington’s North End is a hopeful sign for the future of American health care, speakers at the event said.

The health center will undergo a major expansion, thanks to $10.9 million in federal stimulus money. The new building will double the center’s size and enable it to treat about 16,000 patients a year, or about 3,500 more people than now receive medical help there.

The funding that is largely paying for the $11.3 million center was highly competitive. Of about 600 applicants nationwide, 85, including the Burlington health center, received money, said Jack Donnelly, the center’s executive director. The Burlington grant was the 13th largest in the nation, he said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has long championed community health centers and wrote language for centers such as the one in Burlington in the comprehensive health-care reform enacted this year. About $11 billion to be spent during the next five years would double the number of community health centers in the nation to about 15,000, he said.

“This groundbreaking represents not just the start of a new building, but it is also a part of what I believe will be revolution in access to primary health care across Vermont and this country,” Sanders said.

The Burlington center is one of eight in Vermont. The centers provide health care to anyone, regardless of ability to pay, and regardless of whether the patients have insurance. Patients pay for health services on a sliding scale. Sanders said community health centers allow people to seek affordable help for medical problems sooner, rather than wait until their conditions escalate into more expensive, serious illnesses.
Community Health Center of Burlington board member and patient representative Steve Yurasits said he believes he is much healthier now than if he not had access to the center, as doctors there nipped health problems in the bud.

He said dental care offered at the health center prevented him from losing “my smile, my dignity and quite a few teeth.”

Sanders said two more community health centers are under consideration in Addison and Bennington counties.

The new structure at 617 Riverside Ave. will be built in two phases. Part of it is under construction now.

Once part one is done, probably by late spring, the current health center will be razed. The project is expected to be completed by January 2012.