Patients surprised by closure of two public clinics in Austin

CommUnityCare closed two public clinics in Austin last month and shuffled services around at others, leaving some of the area’s neediest patients surprised and looking for alternatives.

The closure of a clinic that served about 860 people a year in Del Valle means more residents will have to drive to Austin for treatment. The other closure in Northeast Austin will affect an estimated 2,600 additional low-income patients. At both locations, some were notified of the changes, while others who were not told of the closures found out when they showed up to get treatment.

The Del Valle clinic located off FM 973 near Texas 71 closed on May 13 after road construction reduced the number of patients by about 20 percent and further construction on a Travis County community center threatened to complicate patient access even further, said Terri Sabella, chief operating officer for CommUnityCare, which receives property tax support from Central Health to operate public clinics.

The AK Black clinic in the St. Johns neighborhood in Northeast Austin also closed May 13, soon after People’s Community Clinic, which also serves low-income patients, opened a new location about a mile away. Sabella said that AK Black, a relatively small facility, would have competed with People’s.

“We’re trying to make sure that we provide care that is high-quality, convenient to the patient, and that takes some moving around,” Sabella said. “We’re all trying to communicate the best we can about these decisions being made, but they really are made with the intent to improve the service level and quality in the community.”

Read: People’s Community Clinic expands to $16 million building in Austin

Although CommUnityCare officials have attempted to call and mail all patients multiple times, Jill Ramirez, president of the Latino HealthCare Forum, said that closures have surprised some.

“We did not run into any patients that were told ahead of time. Some people mentioned to us that they just went to the clinic and they were closed,” Ramirez said.

Elizabeth Loika, the director of the University of Texas School of Nursing Children’s Wellness Center located on the Del Valle High School campus, said that people sometimes confuse her clinic with the now-shuttered Del Valle CommUnityCare center. She said that her clinic has received calls from desperate patients of the closed clinic, but she has had to turn some away because her clinic only serves pediatric patients.

“We were getting a lot of angry complaints from people as far as access because of the Del Valle CommUnity clinic, which is about a mile away … they just up and closed with no notification,” Loika said. “We had our front-end staff try to set up appointments with UT’s Family Wellness Clinic off I-35 near campus. The problem is that it is way out of town.”

The closed Del Valle clinic, which operated out of a 2,000-square-foot portable building, served less than 1 percent of the 88,000 patients CommUnityCare reported last year.

The Del Valle provider is now at Southeast Health and Wellness Center, about 6 miles away near Montopolis Drive and East Oltorf Street.

Sabella said that once the Travis County community center is completed — which county officials said will take about a year — a clinic could go there.

Ramirez said that she wishes CommUnityCare could have found a temporary site for a clinic in Del Valle after closing the other so that people aren’t driving miles to see a doctor.

“It’s a hardship for some families,” she said.

In an attempt to consolidate walk-in patients, CommUnityCare has also stopped taking such patients at the Southeast Health and Wellness Center, asking them instead to visit their clinic at William Cannon Drive, which now only takes walk-in patients.

Read: Southeast Austin health clinic opens, with a focus on wellness

Up north, the shuttered AK Black clinic served 2,600 patients last year between two providers in a 4,000-square-foot facility.

Sabella advises patients to go to the Rundberg clinic where the providers previously at AK Black are serving people, or to People’s Community Clinic, a 59,000-square-foot facility with specialized services ranging from primary care, behavioral health services and pediatric care to cardiology, neurology, pediatric endocrinology and orthopedic services.

Regina Rogoff, chief executive officer of People’s, said that over the past year, the clinic has added about 600 patients and is still growing. Rogoff said People’s will accommodate any patients left behind by AK Black.

“AK Black was doing the best job they could. They’re very small. We collaborated. They did not close that site until we opened here,” Rogoff said. “Our intention was always to make sure that nobody fell through the cracks. Nobody has come to me and said that this has happened.”

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