CLEARWATER — A new high-tech Mobile Medical Unit offering free primary health care for the homeless is on duty and making rounds at soup kitchens and shelters in Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Pinellas Park.
The vehicle, which cost $420,000, was purchased primarily with stimulus money provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Pinellas County Health and Human Services runs the Mobile Medical Unit program with an annual operating budget of $845,000, funded with county monies and a $431,000 federal grant.
At 40 feet long, 13 feet tall and 15 feet wide (with the aid of three bump-outs that expand the interior), the bright and spacious MMU boasts its own phlebotomy drawing chair, two medical exam rooms, a pair of intake rooms, an open intake area and a bathroom — much roomier than the last, say team members.
The five-member medical team has a doctor, two registered nurses, a case manager and an eligibility specialist, all who praise their new digs.
"The old bathroom was tiny and I used it as my office," said Jackie Dallman, a registered nurse. "I used to sit on the toilet sideways with my laptop."
Case manager Kevin Welch, who now conducts interviews inside a small intake room, said the new quarters beat talking to patients from the passenger's seat up front.
"This is like the Hilton to me," he said.
And for homeless patients like James Logan, it's a blessing.
"It's a nice gig — better than looking around for a hospital," said Logan, who came for an exam when the vehicle was parked near Everybody's Tabernacle, at the corner of Engman Street and Holt Avenue in Clearwater.
"I give the staff above-excellent marks," he said.
The truck-based unit by LifeLine Mobile of Columbus, Ohio — the fourth generation of the county's mobile medical units — is a vastly different creature than the program's original 1987 version, when care was administered from the back of a station wagon using supplies and instruments stored in a tackle box.
It replaces a much narrower 37-foot-long van bought in 2003 for $215,000.
Then, the county's homeless population was estimated at about 3,500. Today, the number of homeless children and adults has ballooned to 22,000, said Lynn Kiehne, the county's health care administrator. The definition includes people crashing on couches in someone's home; living in tents, shelters and motels; or sleeping in cars.
More than 2,500 are treated each year for acute illnesses such as colds or flu, or for chronic conditions like hypertension or diabetes. To qualify for care from the unit, patients must be homeless and not eligible to receive medical assistance from other government programs.
"We've reduced their trips to the ER by 60 to 70 percent," said Dr. Raju Mungara, who provides a variety of primary care services ranging from vaccinations to pap smears.
Not so long ago, he found a lump in a man's breast and referred him to specialists. It turned out to be Stage 3 breast cancer. Now, the patient receives chemotherapy.
"It made us feel so happy that we saved somebody," Mungara said. "My staff and I take a very special interest in all our patients."
In addition to medical care, homeless people are evaluated to see if they qualify for food stamps, housing, veterans' or other benefits. During their visit they may receive prescriptions or be referred to substance abuse programs, specialists or a dentist.
On the road since August, the MMU averages three or four stops a week; the staff sees about 10 to 20 patients per stop.
One addition that should aid efficiency: Medical records are now streamed into an electronic database for future use.
Kiehne said the goal is to keep the homeless population healthier and out of emergency rooms and hospitals, where care is much more expensive.
"At the same time, we try to get them on the road to self-sufficiency so they can become taxpaying citizens," she said.
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