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Pinellas County to build health clinic for the poor

In the same Largo complex that is home to the county jail and the area's largest homeless shelter, Pinellas County is planning to build a health clinic for the poor.

As early as this summer, construction could begin on a proposed two-story building that will be paid for with a $5 million federal grant. The building would house a primary care clinic, mental health services and housing placement assistance programs. A small library and children's room are planned for its first floor and, on the second, county officials have mapped out a "respite center" for people who have just left the hospital but are too unstable to return to life on the street.

The clinic also would offer dental checkups, gynecological exams and pediatric services.

Geared toward homeless families, who represent a growing percentage of the county's homeless population, the clinic is being proposed as a no-judgment zone for free health care.

"We have grown increasingly concerned about health care being provided to children who are off the grid," said Gwendolyn Warren, director of the county's Department of Health and Human Services. "We want to promote this place as a truly safe place for parents to bring their children."

For poor families, particularly homeless ones, a trip to the doctor is fraught with complications, Warren said. Parents who are sleeping in their cars and sending their children to school in the same clothes each day fear that doctors will notice their unstable living arrangements and call the Department of Children and Families.

Rather than risk losing custody, some forgo medical checkups and vaccinations.

Warren envisions a clinic where staffers will go out of their way to alleviate these fears, either by bringing in relatives to look after the children or helping parents to do so.

Renderings of the clinic, which is scheduled to open in 2015, show it facing 49th Street N and catty-corner to Safe Harbor, a homeless shelter run by the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Though Safe Harbor is open to everyone, the county's clinic would bar people who have been drinking or taking drugs.

Warren said she already has signed an agreement with BayCare, which will provide some of the staff and supplies for the clinic, and is working on a partnership with All Children's Hospital. In total, she expects the clinic to have eight medically trained staff members.

If Florida decides to expand Medicaid, the federal program will shoulder most of the costs. If not, Warren expects that the county will bear much of the costs. She estimates that yearly costs would come to $1.6 million.

"Our health care program right now costs us around $25 million, and we serve a little over 15,000 people," she said. "If all else fails, I will ask and request that the county continue funding our program and then it will be up to the county manager and the commission to decide if they can do that."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com.

Pinellas County to build health clinic for the poor 03/16/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 16, 2013 7:14pm]
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