With expansion, Interfaith Community Health Center moves to meet rising patient needs

Money in the nonprofit world is almost always tight.

But at the Interfaith Community Health Center in Bellingham, a desire to expand and meet a growing need for affordable health care—and counter the multitude of health and social-service programs dealt funding cuts over the past several years—was enough for directors to back a fundraising campaign with a hefty $3.15 million goal.

Now, with a prime component of the center’s expansion complete, its leaders believe they are in a better position to confront an increasingly uncertain future in health care.

“What this project has allowed us to do is get smart and learn how to fundraise,” said Gib Clarke, Interfaith’s director of planning and development.

With supporters and community members looking on, Interfaith unveiled a newly expanded facility at 220 Unity St., during an open house event on Thursday, May 9. The first floor of the Unity Street clinic now features 12 new exam rooms, as well as remodeled waiting areas and administrative offices.

Additional expansion will also add a new in-house pharmacy at the Unity Street clinic, as well as new administration and behavioral health facilities at Interfaith’s office at 1616 Cornwall Ave., and added space to its Ferndale dental clinic.

The nonprofit center currently provides more than 14,000 Whatcom County residents with a range of affordable health services regardless of whether they carry medical insurance or have the ability to pay for care, according to Interfaith’s 2012 annual report.

But with expansion, the center should be able to serve up to 3,500 new patients, said Desmond Skubi, Interfaith’s executive director.

The new capacity will be a welcome addition for patients and care providers alike.

Demand for Interfaith’s services has grown in tandem with rising medical costs and a sputtering economy. The center’s roster of uninsured patients has grown more than 50 percent in the past two years, while at the same time, total patient levels are up about 30 percent.

The unveiling on Unity Street turned into an emotional moment for some of the center’s staff and several patients who gave remarks to visitors. Some noted the humble nature of Interfaith’s doctors and staff. For others, the clinic is just about the only place they can turn to for affordable health care for themselves and their families.

The clinic’s care model centers on service for some of the most vulnerable residents of Whatcom County, including 82 percent of the people in the county diagnosed with an HIV infection. More than half its patients earn annual incomes at or below the federal poverty line, defined for 2013 as a family of four earning $23,550 or less per year.

Interfaith has 100 full-time and 39 part-time employees, more than 25 medical, dental and behavioral health care providers, and 38 volunteers, including 28 in its Donated Adult Dental program.

The $10 million agency earned 71 percent of its 2012 revenue through patient services, 20 percent through government grants and contracts and 8 percent through private grants and donations.

Mauri Ingram, president and CEO of the Whatcom Community Foundation and a member of the steering committee for the clinic’s fundraising campaign, said Interfaith is a standout element of health care in Whatcom County, particularly with its work giving access to care to low-income individuals.

Ingram said she thinks the clinic’s future in-house pharmacy will be an exciting addition to the facility, as well as an important tool to help Interfaith meet what she thinks will be one of its greatest challenges over the next several years: handling the growing needs of its patients.

Revenue from the pharmacy should also help Interfaith become a more self-sustaining nonprofit operation, she added.

“That’s a great thing about that component of this project,” she said.

The pharmacy’s construction should be finished by mid-June, said Hank Bledowski, Interfaith’s facilities manager. Dawson Construction Inc. has been the general contractor for the center’s expansion.

As a federally qualified health center, Interfaith is able to take advantage of a pharmacy program for community health clinics that offer care to medically underserved groups. Known as the 340B Program, and overseen by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, the arrangement requires drug manufacturers to provide prescription drugs to clinics such as Interfaith at significantly reduced prices.

Clarke said the program requires Interfaith to then pass on these lower prices to patients not covered by private health insurance or Medicaid, Medicare or Basic Health. Uninsured patients make up 23 percent of Interfaith’s patient base, according to Clarke.

Patients with private-insurance coverage, who make up 8 percent of the base, will be able to buy medication at more typical prescription prices, which will drive revenue to the pharmacy.

Interfaith is expected to bring in about $145,000 in annual net revenue from the pharmacy, according to Clarke.

Aside from the added revenue, Clarke said the in-house pharmacy will help Interfaith improve its patient care in other ways.

Since transportation can be a challenge for some patients, having a pharmacy right next door to doctors’ offices should make the process of picking up medication much simpler for many, Clarke said. Additionally, with Interfaith having its pharmacists as members of its medical team, any questions from patients can be directly addressed in person, by email or phone, or through the center’s instant-messaging system, he said.

While the new expansion has been cause for celebration, there is still fundraising to do.

More than $2 million has been contributed to Interfaith by community donors. Fundraising managers say another $240,000 has been pledged toward the campaign, and Interfaith also anticipates an additional $630,000 from the city of Bellingham and the Washington State Department of Commerce.

But the center still needs about $240,000 to meet its $3.15 million fundraising goal and complete its expansion without incurring debt.

Jon Martin, president of the center’s board of directors, told visitors at the open-house event that he thought it would be remarkable if the facility’s expansion could be fully funded through community donations.

Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or evan@bbjtoday.com.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 30, 2013
The federal 340B Program requires Interfaith Community Health Center to offer reduced-cost prescriptions to patients without private-insurance coverage. The same reduced-cost prescriptions are not passed on to patients who have private-insurance coverage, as a previous version of this article stated. 

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