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Alachua County Health Care Advisory Board meets about health disparities in East Gainesville

A colorized closeup of the hepatitis C virus.
James Cavallini
Science Source
Hepatitis C is just one of many infections that needs to be treated immediately, but not everyone in Alachua's low income areas has access to these treatments.

A hepatitis C clinic is one of the board’s projects to help residents in less wealthier areas gain access to needed treatments and care.

The Florida Department of Health in Alachua County is developing a hepatitis C clinic in the next 60 days for uninsured residents to be treated and cured of this disease — a step to counteract health disparities in East Gainesville.

The Alachua County Health Care Advisory Board met Wednesday to discuss updates on the initiatives to bridge health disparities in East Gainesville.

The lack of access to health care in less wealthier areas, including East Gainesville, has been a problem for many years. It wasn’t until late 2020 when the Alachua County Commission started developing a plan to help mend these health disparities.

Hepatitis C is just one of many infections that needs to be treated immediately but not everyone in low income areas has access to these treatments. This clinic is one of the board’s projects to curb health disparities and help residents get the treatments and care they need.

In December 2020, the Healthcare Equity and Access Advisory Group led by Gainesville City Commissioner Gigi Simmons conducted a survey of East Gainesville residents to understand their health care needs. The survey showed that these residents struggled with adequate transportation and lack of insurance.

“It is extraordinarily important to get as much input as possible on how to alleviate the health disparities in East Gainesville,” advisory board chairman Brendan Shortley said.

Wednesday night’s meeting discussed progress and updates, but a decision is more likely to be made during the March 16 meeting, Shortley said. He encouraged residents to attend that meeting in person because commissioners are likely to cast their votes on this issue.

The advisory board designated four subcommittees to deal with various aspects of health care, said Cindy Bishop, Community Health Offering Innovative Care and Educational Services (CHOICES) Program Manager. The four committees focus on dental health, primary care, mental health, and outreach and case management.

The subcommittees look for gaps in services and what barriers exist and make recommendations on how to address them. Once committee members complete their tasks, they pass their recommendations to the health care advisory board. Bishop also talked about some of the obstacles to health care the groups have identified, including transportation, language barriers, cost of care and trouble getting prescription medication.

When the initiative to help with the health disparities in East Gainesville first began, the Alachua County Commission directed the advisory board to explore ways a to achieve health equity in East Gainesville and involve healthcare providers.At Wednesday’s meeting, Melissa Laliberte, assistant director of the We Care Physician Referral Network, said the organization is finally fully staffed after several months and they have numbers reported for their oral healthcare program.

“We are very proud to have continued that through COVID,” Laliberte said. “We Care is now in a collaboration to improve referral completion rates.”

Some of the efforts that the subcommittees have put in have already shown progress for East Gainesville residents. Gay Koehler-Sides, the HIV & AIDS program coordinator with Florida Department of Health in Alachua County, discussed the November 2021 to January results from the After Hours Clinic, a clinic that provides more affordable healthcare and remains open past 5 p.m.

As job times were a barrier for many residents in East Gainesville, the health department created extended hours from Monday through Friday until 7 p.m. and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the weekends.

The clinic saw 648 clients, Koehler-Sides said. About 60% of the visitors were established clients and 40% were new clients. The top three reasons clients visited were for COVID-19 testing, primary care and communicable disease. Of the clients, 62% were uninsured. The top two zip codes they saw clients from were 32641 and 32609, which are in East Gainesville.

However, the month of January saw more patients than usual due to increased demand for COVID-19 testing, said Paul Myers, administrator at the Florida Department of Health in Alachua County. The clinic was one of Myers’ first ideas to address health disparities. It was approved on the spot.

“I’m hopeful that the After Hours Clinic will be successful in helping bridge the gap in these health disparities,” Shortley said.

Myers hopes the hepatitis C clinic will open soon and he is excited to have this clinic develop for those residents that need it.

“We have the resources to do it,” Myers said. “We have the expertise to do it, and so I think that’s very exciting that we have this disease that at one point did not have a cure but now we do.”

Many people, including Bishop, are hopeful to see the progress that ensures East Gainesville residents get equal health opportunities.

“The subcommittees are moving toward kind of matching those recommendations up to where the gaps and barriers exist and how they are going to address some of those,” Bishop said. “So I think everything is coming along very well.”