By REID TUCKER
Freeport’s Community Health Center, named the Dr. Daniel H. Simmons Health Clinic, aims to continue its namesake’s legacy of providing quality health care to populations with limited access to it.
Though the Community Health Center, which provides health care and dental services on a sliding scale to uninsured patients and also serves those on Medicaid and Medicare, opened its doors in February, an official grand opening and dedication ceremony was held Friday, Aug. 12. The center was was named in honor of Simmons, who served the Freeport community for about 30 years beginning in the late 1890s. Simmons, one of Florida’s first licensed physicians, was known throughout Walton County for bringing medical care to those who would have otherwise not seen a doctor due to limited accessibility or lack of income.
While local dignitaries and government officials representing Walton County and the city of Freeport were in attendance at the ceremony, the guest of honor and keynote speaker was former Florida governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham. In addition to his reputation as one of the most popular governors in Florida history and his 38 years as a public servant, Graham was invited to attend the ceremony as he is also one of Simmons’ grandchildren.
Though Simmons died before Graham was born, Graham’s mother told him stories of how his grandfather would make house calls deep in the country and how many of the doctor’s less fortunate patients often paid in chickens or garden vegetables when money was tight. Graham said Simmons’ dedication to those with limited access to health care is the goal of the Freeport Health Center that bears his name.
“I’m proud of my grandfather,” Graham said. “The easy thing would have been to go to a place like Pensacola or Tallahassee or some larger city but he picked Walton County. He came to this community because he saw a need. I know that Doctor Simmons would consider this to be one of the great honors of his legacy to this community.”
The Dr. Daniel H. Simmons Health Clinic is one of three Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) opened by PanCare of Florida, Inc., a nonprofit health care organization based in Bay County. The facility has five exam rooms and four dental suites and is staffed by medical employees including a nurse practitioner, a full-time dentist, nurses and medical assistants with a sixth full-time employee soon to be filled.
After a two-year application process, PanCare received a $540,000 loan and a grant of $100,000 from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development (which helps small towns acquire health clinics and water and sewer improvements) to secure finances for the purchase and renovation of the building from which the clinic now operates. While the clinic has seen a steady increase in the number of patients it has served since opening in February, with some 120-plus appointments scheduled in July, PanCare President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Hill said the health center is already looking to expand its services.
Planned updates include a mobile medical/dental unit that can range as far afield as Paxton, a radiology facility and a lab at the clinic’s main site. Hill said providing the health clinic’s services on a sliding scale according to patients’ ability to pay will have a tremendous impact for good in the community.
“We’re here to stay,” Hill said. “It’s still a work in process but we anticipate seeing 6,000 [patients] when we’re at capacity.
“They’ve had access to medical care (in Freeport) in the past but there were very few people that were willing to see large numbers of uninsured or indigent (patients). It’s a huge asset to this community and the low-income population.”
Basically, the sliding scale works like this: uninsured patients pay a certain amount for a doctor’s visit based on their income and the number of people in their family. Under this program, qualifying patients can pay as little as $25 for a dental visit, something Hill said is a huge advantage for low-income families and the community at large as this cuts down on overcrowding in emergency rooms.
Florida has 45 Federally Qualified Health Center corporations, PanCare of Florida among them, and the new Freeport location is the 301st such clinic to open in the state. Because of the ongoing health care debate within the federal government, Hill said Community Health Centers like the one appropriately named for Daniel Hutchinson Simmons are a sterling example of what can be accomplished when citizens and organizations work together.
“This dedication ceremony is truly recognition that good things happen when citizens of the community come together to address issues that affect the lifestyle and the quality of life for their fellow citizens,” Hill said. “I’m really looking forward to having this be a beacon for the less-fortunate who need medical and dental care.”