El Rio Opens Cherrybell Health Center

By Romi Carrell Wittman

El Rio Health opened its 14th community health clinic, the Cherrybell Health Center, on March 4 to much fanfare. Local dignitaries, residents of Ward 5 and many others were invited to tour the new center, which houses more than 150 medical professionals and offers primary medical care for children and adults.  

El Rio CEO Nancy Johnson said the new center means a lot of things for the organization. “It’s another fully integrated campus,” she said of the new 50,000-square-foot clinic designed by BWS Architects and built by BFL Construction.. “Patients can get medical and dental care, behavioral healthcare here. There’s an on-site pharmacy, state-of-the-art lab facilities with mammography, ultrasound and X-ray services. We also offer wellness programs. It’s a fully integrated, one-stop shop for healthcare.” 

Johnson pointed to the ample research that indicates that those who receive their healthcare in an integrated model are healthier. In addition, Johnson noted that El Rio’s payment model – it accepts most commercial health insurance plans and Medicaid, and offers a sliding-scale payment method for those who lack insurance – makes healthcare accessible to all. 

“We take care of everyone,” she said, adding that in this community El Rio serves one in 10 people for primary medical and dental care. “We take care of the most vulnerable.”

Located at the corner of 22nd Street and Cherrybell Stravenue, the new Cherrybell Health Center replaces an older, smaller facility located near Broadway and Euclid, which will be demolished as part of the Broadway corridor expansion. 

The new building will get roughly 50 percent of its electricity from photovoltaic panels, which also serve as shade structures for patient and employee parking. 

“Being located in Ward 5, we’re embedded in all those neighborhoods. We’re one-stop care, but we’re also strategically convenient for people since we’re open until 8 p.m. and on Saturdays,” Johnson said. She also noted that same-day care is always available. 

The nearly 50-year-old El Rio Health got its start thanks to President Lyndon Johnson’s famous War on Poverty. This initiative funneled millions of dollars into cities across the U.S. with the singular goal of bringing quality healthcare to all Americans. 

In 1970, a local community group formed to apply for federal grants to start some kind of community health center. The group secured land on Tucson’s west side and got the help of Pima County, which donated an old juvenile detention center and $50,000 to get the facility up and running. In October of that year, the first El Rio neighborhood health center opened with a small staff of medical and dental professionals to serve about 10,000 patients. 

Today El Rio Health’s 1,300+ employees serve more than 107,000 patients with an annual budget of $160 million. It’s one of the largest community health centers in the country and is a nationally recognized model of integrated healthcare. 

The Cherrybell Health Center doubles as a teaching center as well. “This center was built to accommodate medical students, pharmacy residents, family medicine residents,” Johnson said. “We also have pediatric and adult dental residents.” Integrated dental care has long been standard practice at El Rio – meaning dental hygienists are embedded in the clinics and can provide fluoride treatments during well-child visits. 

The new facility will also serve 1,600 HIV/AIDS patients who were previously served at a small clinic near St. Mary’s Hospital. The new clinic space is twice the size of the old clinic. “We take care of more HIV/AIDS patients than any other clinic in Southern Arizona,” Johnson said. 

El Rio Health relies on a number of sources for its budget, including funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Patient payments and insurance are, of course, another part. Grants and fundraising help fill in any gaps. The El Rio Health Foundation raises some $1 million annually to cover programs that aren’t otherwise funded. As an example, Johnson said, “Medicare doesn’t cover dental care, so foundation monies are used for that.” She also noted that funding for educational programs – like the one El Rio offers to parents of kids with asthma – all comes from monies raised by the foundation.

CEO Johnson said that many upcoming projects are in the works for El Rio. Its Southeast Campus at Golf Links and Kolb, which has been in operation for the past 10 years, will be expanded to offer additional services for women, more dental care and behavioral health services as well as physical therapy. The expansion is expected to be completed in November. In addition, El Rio’s shared partnership with Tucson Medical Center, named HealthOn Tucson,  will open additional neighborhood clinics, including one near Fourth Avenue and University. HealthOn Broadway, a small clinic located downtown at Stone and Broadway, has been open for almost two years and offers an array of primary care services. 

Reflecting on the opening of the new center, Johnson said she is most proud of the fact that the new facility will enable El Rio to serve even more people. “We’re a self-funded company,” she said. “Most of us who work here are patients of El Rio ourselves and we think this is what primary care should look like.” 

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