Feb. 19 2016 11:46 AM

Ingham County’s Forest Community Health Center opens on Lansing’s south side

Todd Heywood/City Pulse

FRIDAY, Feb. 19 — About 200 people crammed into Ingham County’s newest public health facility this morning. They weren’t sick, but they came out feeling better anyway.

The occasion was the official opening of Forest Community Health Center, called the “crown jewel” of Ingham County’s community health centers by Ingham County Commissioner Todd Tennis.

Instead of institutional gloom, the visitors found cheery green and yellow halls, airy waiting rooms, modern medical equipment and enough dentist’s chairs to start a synchronized drilling team.

The 37,000-square-foot center offers adult health care, all-ages dental care, mental heath and a range of other services.

With 22 bathrooms available — one more than the center’s 21 health care providers — nobody had to miss more than a minute of effusive speeches from county health officials and others who have waited years for the new digs.

The center, which has been open since last month, expects to welcome tens of thousands of patients, mostly from underserved parts of the community. As a federally qualified heath center, Forest accepts patients regardless of ability to pay.

Tennis called it “serendipity” that the site, on Cedar Street just a block south of Mt. Hope Avenue, became available in 2010, just when the county was planning to restructure its network of community health centers. The county bought the building in 2013 and finished renovations last month.

County officials said the health centers’ reserve funds paid for the $1.87 million building and $1.57 million renovation.

Jon Villasurda, board chairman of Ingham County's Community Health Center, spoke at the grand opening celebration of the county's new 37,000-square-foot Forest Health Center in south Lansing this morning.
Todd Heywood/City Pulse

Jon Villasurda, chairman of the Ingham Community Health Center’s board of directors, said federal money allocated to community health centers across the nation under the Affordable Care Act was crucial to the project.

“Without that, we probably wouldn’t be standing in this room today,” Villasurda said.

While people gathered for the opening ceremony, health center personnel weaved their way through the halls, giving quick tours to visitors.

Staffer Dana Prater ushered a curious couple through a labyrinth of examining rooms, a triage room, labs, reception areas and a room for breastfeeding mothers. Each doctor-nurse-medical assistant team, Prater explained, has its own lab for running urine tests and other procedures.

The new center triples the number of examining rooms of the old facility at the Human Services Building, but numbers are only part of the story. The Forest Center’s layout, decor and check-in procedures are designed to minimize the dehumanizing effects of navigating the health care system. County Health Officer Linda Vail said that “an elevated level of dignity” was a high priority at the new center.

Prater pointed to computer terminals near the front door. “Patients can check in without any interaction, if they don’t want it,” she said. “After check-in, they don’t have to stay in one area. They can roam, go back into their car, do whatever they want.”

The front window reads “Welcome” in over 20 languages. Even the portraits of famous writers and inspirational quotes in the halls — from a multi-cultural bouquet of luminaries like Ralph Ellison, Oscar Hijnelos, Zora Neale Hurston, Elie Wiesel and Isabel Allende — offer food for thought instead of cutesy blandness.

Villasurda said that a dramatic improvement in community health services is not only a worthy end in itself, but also part of a bigger picture.

Equal access to health services, he said, is a “great equalizer in our society.”

“It’s the reason whey we’re able to focus in school, why we’re able to smile confidently and present for job interviews, to work and not worry about feeling ill,” he said.

Ingham Health Centers serve about 20,000 patients a year, but “there’s still huge need in our community,” Villasurda said. He ticked off a long list of conditions that continue to threaten the health of thousands of Ingham County residents: poverty, lack of insurance, homelessness, HIV/AIDS, chronic diseases, language barriers, educational barriers and lack of access to healthy foods.

In a video message, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a former Ingham County Commissioner and longtime health care advocate, congratulated the county’s health team and talked of “wonderful memories of starting in Ingham County with all of you.”

The buzz over the new building continued after the ceremony — to the puzzlement of the patients checking in or sitting in the waiting room.

In the main hallway, a cluster of excited people crowded together for a photo next to a portrait honoring Lansing’s first African-American dentist, Clinton Canady Jr., a pillar of the Lansing community until his death in 2013.

Canady is one of several community health care pioneers enshrined in a modest hall of fame near the center’s main entrance.

The people in the cluster were all relatives of Canady, including Clinton Canady III, an Ingham County circuit court judge. Some of them traveled from Georgia to be at the opening.

Mark Canady, Canady’s youngest son, said his father would have been pleased by the Forest Center.

“It’s one-stop shopping,” he said. “You have doctors, dentists, they’re looking at dermatologists, and there’s going to be a pharmacy and a lab.”

Sparrow Labs and Community Mental Health of Clinton, Eaton and Ingham counties will lease space in the building. The center also plans to start a pharmacy.

Canady touched one of the center’s primary goals: to make health care less of a struggle for people who are already struggling.

“No more running across town on buses, trying to catch a cab,” Canady said. “You go to one place and get it all done. That’s huge.”

Canady said his father often gave cash-strapped patients extra time to pay. “Sometimes he would give care for free,” he said. “He was very dedicated to public health. He’d be very happy to see this.”

Forest Community Health Center

2316 S. Cedar St., Lansing

To get health care, call: (517) 887-4302