These days, it's nothing but a concrete cavern with a toilet in the middle. But within a few months, this first-floor space in an Annapolis office building will become the first community health center to be opened by Anne Arundel Health System, geared toward providing basic, low-cost health services to the area's working poor.
Officials of Anne Arundel Health System, which runs Anne Arundel Medical Center, said it will be the only one of its kind in the county — a public-private partnership offering primary care to people who are underinsured or lack insurance. Fees will be on a sliding scale, and the staff will offer referrals to specialists who will discount their fees as well as provide referrals to other services in the community.
As they made the announcement last week, hospital and state officials said they expect the center on Forest Drive near Spa Road — near the targeted population — will open in January and could become a model for more primary care centers that are not much different from private practices.
"It's a population that's not getting served much, primary care-wise," said Dr. Scott Eden, credited by officials as the moving force behind the center's creation and who will be its medical director.
"If it's the only one we ever build, sure it's going to help. But it's not going to really fill a need. But if we can see 30,000, 40,000 people, then we can make a difference," Eden said.
Electronic patient records will be tied into the rest of the Anne Arundel Health System, programmed with reminders for routine procedures and care, including vaccinations and mammograms.
"There are still going to be hundreds of thousands of people who, even after health care reform, will fall through the cracks," said John Hurson, the former state delegate from Montgomery County who introduced the legislation to create the Maryland Community Health Resources Commission and now serves as its chairman. "So you need this kind of basic care."
The commission is providing a state grant of $150,000 over three years — one of more than 50 grants statewide — to get the center started, and there is a possibility of federal dollars and other grants as well. House Speaker Michael E. Busch called the center "a great collaboration" between the government and the Anne Arundel Health System.
The plan is to start with a doctor, nurse-practitioner and medical assistant handling up to 10,000 appointments in the first year and reach a "critical mass, maybe by Year 3" to break even, said Tori Bayless, the president and chief operating officer of AAHC. The hope is that it will handle 60,000 appointments during its first five years. AAHC will put in about $250,000 in salaries and construction, but Bayless said the figure will be higher as the health system will underwrite the services.
The center is on city bus lines and has free parking, will have a bilingual staff to serve the area's increasing Latino population, and is expected to expand into extended hours, he said.
The hospital operates a free clinic at the Stanton Community Center in Annapolis.
Patricia Omana, who runs Centro de Ayuda, an immigrant-assistance group, said the center will fill a huge gap in health care for many Spanish-speakers her organization helps. Now, she said, health care is patchwork for many of the organization's clients who can't afford it and who struggle to keep abreast of health fairs and clinics, skipping preventive care, medicines and diagnostic tests, or who seek only emergency treatment.
"This is going to be the all-encompassing place," she said, adding that clients will see it as "This is going to be where I can get my yearly checkups and my child monthly checkups when they are little."
"I just see this as forward-thinking and cutting-edge," said Reginald Brodie, CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Annapolis and Anne Arundel County. He estimated 98 percent of the children he sees are from families with an annual income of less than $10,000.