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Willa Carson Health and Wellness Center in Clearwater may close for good

CLEARWATER — When the Willa Carson Health and Wellness Center closes its doors for holiday break at 1 p.m. today, it will take a $60,000 Christmas miracle to open them again.

Since 1996, the center at 1108 N Martin Luther King Ave. has provided free medical care, community outreach and health-education seminars to people who struggle to afford health care. Nurses and doctors donated their services to the clinic.

But today, the center is so deep in the red that it can no longer afford salaries for five employees or even buy medical supplies.

The board of directors informed employees Thursday that unless the center can raise $60,000 between now and Jan. 2, the nonprofit's doors will remain closed until further notice.

"After a lot of difficult discussion, we are at a point where we're going to have to lay people off temporarily," teary-eyed board president Carrie Hepburn told the employees. "We can't comfortably open the doors back up until we know we have a positive cash flow again."

The news stunned patients and especially staff, who have long known that the outlook was grim but until Thursday did not know the full extent of the trouble.

Can't we reduce our hours? they asked. What about charging a nominal fee for some services?

No, officials said, explaining that the center, which runs primarily on grants and donations, has been operating at a deficit for years.

The snowball effect began in 2008, when tough times led to a cut in annual state funding to the center.

In September 2010, the center was dropped as a home site under the Pinellas County Health Plan. The program had paid for the space and augmented the Willa Carson center with staff and medical supplies.

But the center suffered a devastating blow this year when its two big fundraisers yielded little cash, said executive director Annie Tyrell. Directors had anticipated bringing in $20,000 during the center's annual walk/run in April and $100,000 through its Dec. 3 annual gala.

Instead, those events earned $5,000 and $10,000, respectively.

To top it off, officials say, the depressed economy has resulted in more patients and referrals from other organizations. The Willa Carson center served about 4,000 clients last year an increase of about 1,000 over the previous year.

The center has obtained grants, but any money that has come in has immediately gone to pay debts. The center has been able to break even on an annual operating budget of $250,000, but needs at least $300,000 to afford medical supplies and incidentals.

Tyrell said she has more than $2,000 worth of bills on her desk right now. The registered nurse, who said she's refused a paycheck several times over the last year, is uncertain that she'll be able to meet this month's payroll of $16,000 for herself, two medical assistants, a nurse practitioner and an administrative assistant.

"We have been robbing Peter to pay Paul for a very long time. Every day we stay open, we continue to incur costs," Hepburn said, adding that the board is legally responsible to provide fiscal oversight. "Every little bit helps, but we really need some significant dollars."

Several patients said Thursday that the center has been their "last resort."

Charmaine Pogorzala, 42, of Largo found the Willa Carson center after her husband, Stephen, was laid off from his pest control job last Christmas.

The medical staff helped get her husband and son's diabetes under control, and diagnosed both her and her spouse for the first time with thyroid problems and high cholesterol. The center's partnership with Bay Discount Pharmacy helps pay the family's $600 a month prescription drug tab.

It also was the first time the family had received information on dieting, exercise, proper cooking and other preventative health maintenance.

"It pretty much has saved our family's life medical-wise," Pogorzala said. "We can't afford private insurance because we wouldn't be able to put food on the table."

Until Emma Hammonds, 57, discovered the Willa Carson center two years ago, the laid-off Albertson's assistant manager visited walk-in clinics only if she were very ill. The North Greenwood resident has since quit smoking on the advice of the center staff, virtually eliminating her blood pressure problems, and has been referred to a thyroid specialist.

"That's why a lot of people die, because they don't have the money to go to doctors," Hammonds said. "What do you do if this place closes?"

Officials said it will be difficult for patients to find alternative care, because they might not be able to afford other clinics that charge fees on a sliding scale based on gross income.

"We really don't turn away anybody," Hepburn said, including the homeless, immigrants without a Social Security card, and people with out-of-state identification cards. "That's the awesome thing about it. But it's also the tough thing about it."

Those people likely will either go without health care or flood local emergency rooms, increasing the burden on taxpayers, employees said.

State Sen. Jack Latvala had helped secure a land donation from the city of Clearwater and the funding needed to help the late founder of the center, retired nurse Willa Carson, open the facility in 1996.

He swung by Wednesday and was "taken aback" to hear of the center's plight. Short of community fundraising, the lawmaker said he's unsure how to help but is willing to do whatever it takes.

"I immediately thought about peeling some money out of my pocket, but it's obviously too big a hole for that," Latvala said.

"There's not a lot of government money going around these days. Even if I were to get something in the budget, it wouldn't be until the latter part of next year," he said.

Board members said they will continue to meet with potential financial backers, and stressed to employees that, in the meantime, they need their continued assistance in fundraising.

In addition to getting the word out in the community, in the future if they reopen, a major goal will be instilling in patients that even though the center offers free services, those services come at a price, so it's important to donate money whenever they can.

Tears and sorrowful hugs gave way to smiles Thursday as hopeful employees and board members joined hands in prayer at the end of their meeting.

"The Lord didn't bring the center this far to close the doors," Tyrell said. "We'll continue to pray, and not only to pray, but to believe."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at ksummers@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4153.

How to help

For information on how to donate, visit www.willacarsonhwc.org or call executive director Annie Tyrell at (727) 420-1843.

Willa Carson Health and Wellness Center in Clearwater may close for good 12/22/11 [Last modified: Thursday, December 22, 2011 7:54pm]
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