By Art Petrosemolo
RED BANK – It’s a sunny weekday morning in June and the medical staff at the Parker Family Health Center in Red Bank is seeing patients who suffer from a variety of maladies, including long-term chronic illnesses that need to be managed before they turn serious.
Parker Health has quietly been serving those in need for more than a decade. From its humble beginnings in a trailer on the West Side to a modern 3,500-square-foot medical building today with five examining rooms on Shrewsbury Avenue, the center has made a difference for thousands of patients.
If you thought the Parker Family Health Center was a place the uninsured walk in for treatment of poison ivy or a bad cold, think again. There is a lot more than meets the eye at this volunteer-based, free clinic that serves adults and children who need regular health care and a “medical home” but can’t afford it.
Volunteer-based and free means that dozens of health care providers and nurses including doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, and physician’s assistants donate time each month to see patients by appointment just as any medical office. Many of medical providers are retired doctors who want to stay active in their profession or specialty and treat patients even if it is only a few hours a week. To qualify for care, patients must earn no more than three times what the federal government considers the poverty level and not have Medicare or Medicaid and live in Monmouth County.
By midmorning, nurse practitioner Mary Nicosia, who is the center director and has been with the center since the start, is juggling patient phone calls and lab reports. Nicosia was hired in 1999 by Dr. Eugene Cheslock and Parker’s board of trustees as the program was getting started. The staff call her the glue that keeps the center going. A Red Bank native, Nicosia was director of a community health care facility at Arizona State University and was just the right person at the right time for Parker Health. Cheslock, although retired, is still at the center several times a month and remains active as president of the board of directors. He is the face of Parker Health and actively involved in raising funds to keep the center solvent that has been a challenge through the recession and still weak economy. The center is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.
The mission of the center has always been to help patients stay healthy, treating illnesses before they become so severe that a trip to the emergency room is the only option. Treating a patient costs the center about $80 an appointment while an emergency room visit can be upwards of $300. “Our patients don’t have family doctors,” said Nicosia, “or before coming here, haven’t had regular, ongoing medical care. Going to the emergency room was their only option for any medical problem.”
Open six days weekly, the center can have 11,000 patient (multiple) visits a year and its medical providers can donate up to 10,000 hours annually. “We’re a lot bigger and do many more things that I think people realize,” Nicosia smiled.
The center has a $1 million yearly budget and is supported by grants from foundations and corporations, private gifts and fundraising activities. Jon Bon Jovi was one of the center’s early supporters and continues to help raise awareness and support for the center’s efforts. “The community has been supportive since we opened,” Nicosia said.
With its free service to patients, the Parker Center differs from government-funded Federal Qualified Health Care (FQHC) facilities where patients pay for service on a sliding scale. In Monmouth County, several FQHC facilities are operated by the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA).
In recent years, the center’s medical focus has included treating chronic illnesses including diabetes and hypertension. “These are illnesses where people don’t even know they are sick,” said the center’s Dr. Theresa Liccardi, a columnist for The Two River Times™. “They can be walking around with blood pressure way over 140/90, the threshold for ‘high,’ or sugar levels over 300 that put them at risk for serious medical problems.”
Center staff knows that keeping chronic illness under control with regular visits and appropriate medications gives patients a better quality of life and keeps hospital emergency rooms unclogged with nonemergency visits.
Most of the center’s patients arrive via referrals. “Area hospitals or emergency rooms will discharge a patient who is diabetic and needs ongoing care and regular insulin but no way to obtain it,” said Carmen Phaneuf, nurse practitioner, “and they refer them to us.” The center treats 350 diabetes patients in the program. The clinic tries to keep up with the patient numbers but is limited by the number of volunteer health providers.
Parker Health treats patients in a team approach. Diabetic patients see a team that includes a nurse practitioner, a certified diabetes educator and two registered dieticians including, if necessary, one who speaks Spanish. A podiatrist and ophthalmologist also are on the team. The staff works closely with patients to help them understand their disease and make lifestyle changes – including diet and exercise – to prevent long-term complications.
Liccardi, a nephrologist, heads the team that treats hypertension or high blood pressure – a major risk factor for cardiovascular, kidney or renal disease. She said the statistics tell the story: “There are 60 million people in the country with high blood pressure and half who are not aware of it so it goes untreated. It leaves them at risk for heart attack, stroke and other serious medical problems,” she explained.
When Parker first opened and for the first several years, the majority of patients were local West Side residents. Today, the staff points out, many patients from all over Monmouth County are individuals who lost their jobs or benefits during the recent recession and can’t afford the skyrocketing cost of health insurance. Nicosia said, “Many patients may be working but part-time and they may know they need regular, preventive health screenings but just can’t afford it.”
Looking ahead, the role of volunteer-free health facilities, which can be considered safety nets for the uninsured, is not clear and could change. “Our overall mission will not change,” predicted Dr. Roy Carman, the Parker Family Health Center’s medical director, “with the implementation of the Affordable Healthcare (Obama Care) Act and I believe there will be a place for us in the new system.
“At the clinic I teach students from Rutgers’ medical school,” Carman said, “and Parker is a valuable laboratory for their training and preparing them for the personal side of medicine.”
Some professionals who follow the health care act speculate Parker may serve as an approved location where the newly AAHC-insured get their primary health care and keep chronic diseases under control.
“For 12 years, we’ve had a dedicated group of health care professionals who do an awesome job,” Nicosia said. “We want to continue to serve the community for years to come.”
Parker Family Health Center is named for Red Bank’s own well-known father and son physicians, Drs. James Parker, senior and junior, who were instrumental in the treatment of the uninsured in Red Bank for most of the 20th century.