Friday, November 18, 2005

County Program Extends Health Care to Homeless

County Program Extends Health Care to Homeless
By Sarah Arnquist

VALLEJO - Charles Low saw a doctor last week for the first time in two years. Before that, he frequented the emergency room because that was the only place a doctor would see him.

Low, 49, has been homeless since 2000. Solano County public health workers connected with him three weeks ago, and he has since seen a doctor and signed up for a county insurance program for very low-income people.

"Next week I'll finally get a primary care doctor and access to dental care," he said.

Low couldn't remember the last time he saw a dentist.

Low is one of an estimated 4,800 homeless people in Solano County. They sleep on the streets, in shelters, transitional homes or double up with friends and family on any given night. Solano County health workers hope to improve the homeless population's health by increasing access to care through expanded community clinic hours, satellite clinics and health outreach workers.

A three-year $600,000 federal grant Solano County received in 2004 funds the expanded health care services, which include a full-time health outreach worker, nurse case manager and a satellite clinic at the Success Center, a homeless day shelter and program in Vallejo.

Bringing the health services to places where the homeless people already are seemed the best way to reach them, said Odessa Pinnock, Solano County health services manager in charge of the program.

After a year of planning, the program is just getting on its feet. The satellite clinic opened Sept. 8 and sees seven to 10 people each Thursday morning , Pinnock said.

County officials plan to expand the homeless health services to Fairfield and Rio Vista next year. If the program meets all its goals after three years, the federal government will renew the grant.

Homeless people are frequent users of the emergency room. One goal of the program is to reduce emergency room use by connecting these people to a primary care doctor, Pinnock said. That often requires extensive case management and frequent phone calls, she said.

This is a transient population that moves and changes phone numbers a lot, said Janice Vega, the program health outreach worker. She tracks people to ensure they have transportation to an appointment, they went to the appointment and they followed the doctor's orders. She also connects them to other resources such as housing, transportation and food assistance.

"Our goal is to not lose a person -Êbecause once you lose contact that's it," Vega said.

Managing chronic conditions such as high blood pressure or diabetes is particularly difficult for homeless people and often is what brings them into the emergency rooms, Pinnock said.

Martin Cacique has been homeless for eight months and has type 2 diabetes, a disease that requires close monitoring of blood sugar levels. Before Cacique, 45, found shelter at the Christian Help Center a few weeks ago, he said he frequently felt terrible because his sugars were out of whack. He would sometimes only eat once a day and then binge when he did eat, a cycle that left him feeling drained and dizzy.

Cacique last saw a doctor more than two years ago in the emergency room. He saw a nurse practitioner last Thursday at the Success Center and said he hopes to get the prescriptions and equipment necessary to track his sugar levels. Now that he has a regular diet and sleep, Cacique thinks he can find and hold a job.

Good health is a critical component to helping people get out of the homeless cycle, said Elvie DeLeon, Success Center executive director. But bringing the homeless into the health care system also benefits the entire community, DeLeon said.

"I think the community will benefit in the long run if these people are given proper health care because they don't spend the resources at the hospital and they are able to work," she said.

Reach Sarah Arnquist at 427-6953 or

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