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Front Street Clinic's future in question

Board to make a decision on funding the public clinic Friday

Posted: August 22, 2013 - 12:12am
Mary Fitzgerald, left, a behavioral health clinician, Janna Brewster, a family nurse practitioner and clinic manager, center, and Ed Linsell, a dentist, all work at the Front Street Clinic. The clinic, paid for by the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, provide free care to Juneau's homeless population. The clinic may lose its funding and close at the end of September.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Mary Fitzgerald, left, a behavioral health clinician, Janna Brewster, a family nurse practitioner and clinic manager, center, and Ed Linsell, a dentist, all work at the Front Street Clinic. The clinic, paid for by the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, provide free care to Juneau's homeless population. The clinic may lose its funding and close at the end of September.

The fate of Front Street Clinic will be decided Thursday and Friday at SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium board meetings, organization spokesman Michael Jenkins said.

Funding for the public clinic, which operates under SEARHC, will be either continued or cut at the Friday meeting. Closing the clinic would be a huge blow to the approximately 300 homeless and low-income Juneau residents who rely on Front Street for health care, whether it be medical, dental or behavioral, Front Street Clinic manager and nurse practitioner Janna Brewster said. She said SEARHC has undergone some hefty cuts of its own.

“SEARHC is looking at their own fiscal house and trying to put it in order and the federal government has cut things,” Brewster said.

But for Front Street patients like Michael Monte, who receives treatment for seizures, care needs to continue somehow, regardless of budget cuts. He said he’s “heartbroken” over the potential closure of the clinic.

“We need this clinic really, really, really bad,” said Monte, a cook at the Glory Hole homeless shelter and soup kitchen downtown. “We need the people here; they change our lives so much. They changed my medication around, knowing I needed help. They’ve just been there.”

Monte said he’s been coming to the clinic for three years and doesn’t know what he’ll do if it closes. He said he’s formed relationships with the staff at Front Street Clinic. Many of his friends attend the clinic, too.

“I love Janna to death, and I always tease her all the time,” he said.

Brewster said Monte was homeless when he first came to Front Street Clinic, but has recently found an apartment. She said she’s worried about the people who would be on their own, health care-wise, if the clinic closed.

Although about 10 percent of the clinic’s patients are Alaska Native and could go to SEARHC’s Ethel Lund Medical Center if Front Street closed, the other 90 percent would probably rely on the Bartlett Regional Hospital emergency room, Brewster said.

BRH spokesman Jim Strader said the hospital is aware of a possible influx of patients to its emergency room, but hasn’t yet made any plans on how to best handle it.

“We did send a letter to SEARCH expressing our support and hope that they could keep it open,” Strader said.

Brewster said Front Street treats patients for everything under the sun, but some of the most common health conditions it sees are high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory diseases, seizures and traumatic brain injuries. Another important role of the clinic is treating drug addictions, she said. In the past fiscal year, the clinic had more than 2,300 patient visits.

Brewster said she won’t be able to leave patients struggling to stay healthy on medications if the clinic closes. She said she’ll meet personally with patients to make sure they’re doing well.

“For the short term, I can at least help some of these folks with their medications, and keep things under control,” she said.

Although a lot of patients are “stronger than they think they are,” Brewster said the outlook could be bleak for others.

“We have some pretty sick patients, and it’s pretty clear that some of them would lose their lives” if the clinic closed, she said. “We help them keep healthy. All that would just stop.”

Brewster said every patient she’s told of the potential closure has been upset and worried.

Front Street Clinic staff has been working with the Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, as well as contacting city officials, to find a way to continue services, Brewster said.

“We’ve been talking to the city, the hospital, our representatives,” she said. “It’s a great place to work, and we love these patients — they’re so grateful for what we do for them.”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com.

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