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A Clearwater medical center needs state help to stay open

CLEARWATER

Ed Hooper was an early supporter of the Willa Carson Health Resource Center and approved funding for it when he served on the Clearwater City Commission.

Now Hooper is a freshman state representative, and he's fighting for the center's survival.

He's planning to visit Gov. Charlie Crist's mansion in the next few days to continue lobbying for a much-needed $50,000. Hooper championed the funds during recent budget negotiations in Tallahassee.

The appropriation was approved by the state House and Senate this week, but it is still subject to Crist's veto, which would leave the center without state funding for this year.

"I want to relay to the governor how important this project is," Hooper, R-Clearwater, said Tuesday. "This is important to a lot of constituents in the county that he calls home. The center is a service that I don't want that community to be without.

In March, the center was $40,000 in the red and officials feared the doors would shut permanently in three months. But a recent spike in donations brought some stability and the $50,000 from the state budget would put the center on solid footing, officials said.

"If that $50,000 is not obtained, it will be felt," said Muhammad Abdur-Rahim, president of the center's board of directors. "If we don't get the $50,000, in a few months, we will be in the same boat as we were a few weeks ago."

The center has an annual budget of $250,000.

As word spread about the center's financial struggles, donations began trickling in. An anonymous donor agreed to match any amount raised by the community. So far, $28,000 has been raised. In addition, the annual Run/Walk for Willa netted another $7,000.

"Now, I think the doors will remain open the rest of the year," said Annie Tyrell, the center's director. "We are not at the point where we feel we have it made but I feel that God has answered a prayer and these doors will remain open."

The center was founded in 1995 by registered nurse Willa Carson to provide health care to the poor. Carson started the center in two apartments in North Greenwood. She gave free blood pressure checks and treated colds. In 2001, she expanded into larger quarters at 1108 N Martin Luther King Jr. Ave.

Much of Carson's energy was dedicated to keeping the clinic open and making preventive health care accessible to Clearwater's African-American community. In 2006, she died at age 80.

The clinic, which has four examination rooms, managed to open five days a week and treat 7,000 people a year when patient care peaked in 2005. But now, the clinic opens three days a week and sees about 4,000 patients a year, largely due to a lack of funding.

The center has recently entered into several cost-cutting partnerships with the Pinellas County Health Department. Starting this week, the health department is providing a nurse practitioner for eight hours a week.

In addition, the department will pay $11 an hour for a medical assistant. That person begins work July 1.

"I want to thank all the people who have been working and pushing this hard," Abdur-Rahim said. "Many people still are not aware that the clinic exists but when they do, and realize that it's there to serve the underserved, they are willing to help out."

Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or dalee@sptimes.com

A Clearwater medical center needs state help to stay open 04/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 9:26am]
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