[caption id="attachment_38877" align="alignleft" width="302" caption="Petaluma Health Center"][/caption]

SONOMA COUNTY -- Two of Sonoma County's federally qualified health centers celebrated grand openings this month. Another announced the award of federal funds to expand services, while a broader coalition of such centers held a conference highlighting the services they provide, even amid the threat of diminishing public funds.

The Petaluma Health Center, Southern Sonoma County's largest provider of primary care, held an open-house at its newly constructed 53,000 square foot, $15.5 million facility,  just about tripling the size of its previous location. West County Health Centers, meanwhile, celebrated the grand opening of its Forestville Wellness Center, its sixth site and first solely dedicated to wellness and preventative services.

[caption id="attachment_38878" align="alignright" width="259" caption="West County Health Centers Forestville Wellness Center"][/caption]

And the Santa Rosa Community Health Centers received a federal grant of $650,000 to expand services for homeless residents on the same day of Petaluma's opening. The Petaluma and West County Health Centers, along with Sonoma County Mental Health, are all partners on the homeless services project.

The flurry of activity among the health centers is no coincidence. All are a part of the Redwood Community Health Coalition, a consortium of health centers in Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Yolo counties. As part of National Health Centers Week held the second week of August, the Redwood Coalition held a press conference warning of the consequences of possible federal budget cuts to such centers.

"Every $1 million cut in community health centers reduces our ability to serve over 8,000 patients," said Mary Maddux-Gonzalez, medical director of the Redwood Coalition.

Yet while non-profit health centers face uncertainty from both the state and federal governments' protracted budget battles, they have taken on an expanded role in the services they provide -- not only with primary care but with an ever-increasing focus toward wellness initiatives that prevent costly emergency room visits.

West County Health Centers opened its Wellness Center with the goal of keeping its patients out of primary care centers or hospitals by providing support groups, alternative therapies and other classes that focus on prevention, according to Mary Szecsey, executive director.

"We need to raise awareness of the needs that exist in our communities and the high costs of failure to provide primary care and preventive health," West County Health Centers said in announcing its new Wellness Center.

Likewise in Petaluma, where the new center, made possible with $8.9 million of federal stimulus funds, will be "a model for innovative health care, wellness and disease prevention," according to Kathie Powell, its chief executive officer. The new center features a "Healthy Living Center" that focuses on preventing chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, among other preventive measures such as promoting more healthful eating and physical activity.

UnitedHealthcare, as part of a 20-year, $200 million fund California Health Care Investment Program, provided support by way of a $620,000 grant and by purchasing $5.87 million of the project's bonds.  Another $500,000 was procured by Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma.

Kaiser Permanente helped the Petaluma Health Center secure its stimulus dollars with a $20,000 grant. But it also shared expertise in helping the center identify what was included in total project costs -- permit fees, moving expenses, furniture and other technical matters -- that ultimately helped the center meet all necessary requirements for the federal funding.  "It's been incredibly rewarding to watch them be successful," said Mark Brna, team manager of capital projects for Kaiser Permanente National Facilities Services, Marin-Sonoma service Area.

The Petaluma and West County Health Centers both provide wellness services that were previously not readily available for much of its patient base, which is mostly lower-income, underinsured or uninsured.

In 2009, the Health Coalition had over 185,000 patients and provided nearly 620,000 clinical visits across its four-county range. Of the total member clinic patients, more than 109,000 are in Sonoma County.  One out of every six residents across the four-county region and one in every four residents in Sonoma County use the health centers,  according to data from the Office of State Health Planning and Development.

Santa Rosa Community Health Centers said the $650,000 grant will enable it to provide primary health, dental, mental health and substance abuse treatment services to Santa Rosa's homeless population at a new clinic, the Brookwood Health Center in downtown. Sonoma County has more than 8,600 homeless people, half of whom are in Santa Rosa, according to the health centers.

"People who are homeless have significant barriers to care and health disparities," said Naomi Fuchs, CEO of Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, which now has eight total locations.

Herb Shultz, regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was on hand for both the Redwood Coalition conference and the Petaluma grand opening. He said the broad support health centers receive and the broad services they provide are hallmarks of health care reform. The centers are needed to help implement the Affordable Care Act, as millions more Americans become eligible for health care, he said, hoping to assuage fears of deep cuts from the federal government.