Care Alliance Provides Health Care for Homeless

by Colleen Bittner

            Established in 1993, Care Alliance (formerly Cleveland Health Care for the Homeless) was founded as one of the nation’s original Health Care for the Homeless projects. It has grown into a non-profit community health center whose mission is to provide high-quality health care and related services to people who need them most, regardless of their ability to pay, in a manner that is cost-effective and that empowers people to improve their quality of life. There is no other organization in the Cleveland area specifically dedicated to providing health care to this population.

            The mission statement emphasizes not only health care but also empowerment. “We empower people through education and support,” says Chief Executive Officer Linda Somers. “People [who] are struggling with a lot of challenges in their lives aren’t usually paying attention to their health. We help them recognize the importance of taking care of themselves, teach them about preventative care, help them form self-management goals, and let them know about all of the services we offer.”

            The organization is staffed by physicians, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, medical assistants, chemical dependency and behavioral health counselors, dentists and dental assistants. “It takes a special kind of person to work at Care Alliance. Our people have a passion and motivation for what they are doing. They also have a dedication and sensitivity to treating the disadvantaged. They could make more money working elsewhere, but they have chosen to be here,” says Somers. Volunteer physicians, nurses, and other medical professionals augment the professional staff and help Care Alliance meet the demands of a community health center. Altogether, the professional staff and volunteers serve more than 3,500 patients each year.

            Care Alliance operates three health centers that are strategically located throughout the city to reach Cleveland’s most disadvantaged populations. Care Alliance also operates health centers located within two public housing estates managed by the Cuyahoga County Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) and provides medical services on an outreach basis at eight locations throughout Cleveland.

            Services include:

•               Primary health care for all phases of life from pediatric to geriatric

•                Chemical dependency/behavioral health screenings and short-term counseling

•               HIV and AIDS counseling, testing, and treatment.

•                Immunizations

•                Comprehensive dental care, including x-rays, dentures and extractions. Dental services consistently rate high among the most unmet health care need among economically disadvantaged populations. Care Alliance responded to this need by opening two dental clinics in 2002 and was the first in the area to offer full dental services.

•                Diabetes Program. More than 195 homeless diabetics are enrolled in the program. Priscilla Bonner, Coordinator of the Diabetes program, described one success story - a homeless patient with very high blood sugar, on drugs and alcohol, told her diabetes was the last thing on his mind when he met her. Now, he is no longer homeless, and through the Diabetes Program, he has gotten his blood sugar to a normal level, attained eyeglasses and dentures, and completed a drug and alcohol program. “We try to take a person like him, make sure he’s willing to work with us, and teach him how to go from uncontrolled to controlled diabetes.”

            The program stresses self-management. “We don’t do everything for patients. I ask them to pick one thing from a list of ten options that they would like to work on to control their blood sugar - whether it involves diet, smoking, exercise, etc. They work at the goal and get excited when they’ve accomplished it.”

            Bonner offers a diabetes education class/luncheon once a month, with nutritional food and a guest speaker. “We’ve had good attendance at the luncheons, and the patients really open up and ask questions,” she says.

            Somers Takes on CEO role

            Somers, originally from Cleveland, joined Care Alliance as the C.E.O. in February 2003. She had been doing consulting work for the organization since October 2002. She joined the Care Alliance team because she saw it as a way for her to really make a difference. “A large part of my decision to come on board had to do with the fact that I really believe in the Care Alliance’s mission. There is such a huge need to provide health care to people who are underprivileged and in need. Working here is something that I feel good about and that, at the end of the day, makes me feel like I am doing something worthwhile,” says Somers.

            Somers earned a bachelor’s degree in social services and an Executive Master of Business Administration from Cleveland State University. She has extensive experience in managed care and social services. Prior to Care Alliance, she served in the Peace Corps, worked as a senior vice-president in a large Washington D.C. hospital, held various roles in medical organizations such as Kaiser and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield, and worked as a counselor in a crisis center.

             Leadership and Funding

            The Care Alliance Board of Directors, whose members have diverse experience and skills, helps guide and shape the organization. Three client advisory boards (Homeless Client Advisory Board, Public Housing Client Advisory Board, and HIV Client Advisory Council) comprised of consumers of Care Alliance services meet on a regular basis to discuss, evaluate, and make recommendations for improvement.

            In addition to private and other donations, Care Alliance is a partner agency of United Way Services. Care Alliance also receives significant funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration - Bureau of Primary Health Care (HRSA/BPHC).

            Editor’s Note: For more information, visit www.carealliance.org.

Copyright to the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Homeless Grapevine Cleveland Ohio 2004 Issue 64