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As the needs of the uninsured grow, so does El Rio


By Marissa Amoni-Jansons


As hospitals in Tucson expand, patients with insurance coverage or the means to pay outright are served well.

But the health care needs of the uninsured are also growing, along with the El Rio Community Health Center.

As the largest provider of medical and dental services to the uninsured in Pima County, El Rio has faced the typical problems – funding and capacity issues at the forefront – but it has managed to stay strong and healthy.

El Rio has 11 clinics in Tucson that served 67,000 patients last year. And it is growing, said Kathy Byrne, the center’s executive director. She expects a 5 percent to 6 percent increase in patients in 2005.

“In the last five years, El Rio’s growth has been tremendous,” Byrne said. This is partially due to population growth in Tucson, she said. Other factors that have spurred visits to El Rio, Byrne said, are the new facilities and the continued number of uninsured residents.

The “build it and they will come” theory seems to be working for the clinic.

Visits to the clinics have nearly doubled since 2000 and there is no sign of them tapering off. The latest addition, Southwest Dental Center at 1530 W. Commerce Court, opened last summer and is capable of serving about 20,000 patients when fully operational. The center is also expanding its dental offerings on the Northwest Side.

“I don’t know where the next expansion will be,” Byrne said. “We are currently talking with city and county officials about our property on Congress to see how we might grow the current program.”

Byrne said she could not be more specific, but that they are trying to work out something that is beneficial to both the county and El Rio.

Six months into her new role, Byrne understands that growth is a given. It is managing growth that is the challenge.

“How to grow facilities and still stay with a good break-even bottom line,” is the question Byrne strives to answer.

El Rio tries to maintain a small profit margin. The target profit is 2 percent and thus far has been obtainable largely due to the support of its foundation.

The El Rio Foundation was started in 2001 and works to raise money for projects and special services at the center.

“We focus on education, wellness and prevention,” said Brenda Goldsmith, executive director of the foundation, “programs that have no billable service.”

Goldsmith is proud that El Rio is one of the few health care centers able to stay in the black.

“We run on a tight margin and require funding from many sources,” she said. “We are fortunate that people understand the importance of what El Rio is providing – there is an appreciation for a healthy, well community.”

El Rio’s patients

23% uninsured


12% private insurance

5% Medicare

8% other public program

2000: 160,000 visits

2004: 250,000 visits

Tracking El Rio’s growth

* 1970 Main Clinic, 839 W. Congress St.

* early 1980s Pascua Yaqui Clinic, 7490 S. Camino de Oeste

* 1991 Special Immunology Associates, 1701 W. St. Mary’s Road, Suite 100

* 1995 Southwest Pediatrics, 1500 W. Commerce Court

* 1995 Southwest Internal Medicine, 1510 W. Commerce Court

* 2002 Sunnyside School District, Summit View Clinic, 1900 E. Summit St.

* 2002 Sunnyside Teen Parent Program, 1725 E. Bilby Road

* 2002 Sunnyside District MEL School Based Clinic, 5101 S. Liberty Ave.

* 2003 Broadway Clinic, 1101 E. Broadway

* 2004 Northwest Clinic, 330 W. Prince Road

* 2004 OB/GYN Associates, 225 W. Irvington Road

* 2004 Southwest Dental, 1530 W. Commerce Court

How Arizona patients pay for health care

Medicare 33%

Medicare Risk 7%

AHCCCS & HC group 23%

HMO 13%

PPO 11%

Commercial 5%

Other 5%

Self-pay and charity 2%

Champus (Military) 1%

Source: Arizona Hospital and Health Care Association, 2003

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