CLEARWATER — It was a grand vision to help the most needy of Pinellas County's residents.
Over the past few months, however, the Pinellas County Commission started to have doubts about building a $5 million medical clinic for the poor near the Pinellas County Jail and Safe Harbor homeless shelter in Largo. On Wednesday, commissioners decided to change course.
The board did not take a formal vote at the work session but generally agreed that an about 2,200-square-foot medical clinic for the homeless — primarily residents already at Safe Harbor — is probably a more realistic approach than the 15,000-square-foot facility that had been planned. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had already awarded the county $5 million to build the larger clinic. Now, county officials will ask permission to use about $1 million of the grant money for the smaller clinic.
"The original (building) was an SUV, do everything-type of vehicle," Commissioner Ken Welch said. "This one … is more of a pickup truck, and I'm okay with that."
Initial plans called for a two-story building housing a primary care clinic, mental health services and housing placement assistance programs. It was to be geared largely toward families, offering dental checkups, gynecological exams and pediatric services. The project also included a "respite center" for people just out of the hospital.
But county officials learned that $5 million would not cover the cost of a building large enough to accommodate all those features and that a respite center would not be allowed under the terms of the grant. The county also planned to partner with local providers to help run the clinic but got lukewarm reception, leading to concerns that Pinellas would be on the hook for a large portion of the operating costs.
The cost to run a smaller clinic would be much more manageable -— about $400,000 to stay open at least 32 hours a week — and could be covered with existing funds and possibly some grant dollars, Dr. Claude Dharamraj, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, told the board.
The pared-down clinic would still free up the county's Mobile Medical Unit, a clinic on wheels that stops once a week at Safe Harbor, to serve homeless patients in other parts of the county, Dharamraj said.
It would also help cut emergency medical services costs by reducing the number of 911 calls to Safe Harbor and eliminating the need — at least part of the day — to send Largo Fire Rescue to medical calls, said interim chief of staff Bruce Moeller.
"If we can expand the (mobile unit) to the rest of the county and reduce EMS costs, it seems like a win-win kind of thing," Commissioner Charlie Justice said.
Commissioners also agreed to ask Sheriff Bob Gualtieri if there is space in the jail's medical wing to house the clinic, though they acknowledged that could be problematic, if not impossible, even if there is space.
They were right, Gualtieri said in an interview later Wednesday.
"It wouldn't work from a space standpoint, an operational standpoint or a security standpoint," he said. "If there was a way I thought it could work, frankly, we'd already be doing it."
Gualtieri had opposed the family medical clinic from the start. He was skeptical that the county could find partners to help run the facility and thought it would be unwise to serve families on a jail campus.
He agreed that a smaller operation geared toward the population at Safe Harbor makes more sense.
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.