El Dorado gets funds for health care

Armed with $8 million in tobacco settlement money and a $1.8 million federal grant, El Dorado County is poised to create greater access to health care for children and low-income families.

The tobacco money allowed $2 million for the community clinic at Barton Memorial Hospital, while almost $3 million was invested in the El Dorado Community Health Center, which opened on the West Slope in April.

The federal grant will allow the county to further energize its plan to create more access to health care across its rural and mountainous terrain.

"I think we were the only county to receive the grant," said Gayle Erbe-Hamlin, director of the El Dorado County Department of Public Health. "Lots of the others were nonprofit. Over 100 applied. The federal government was looking for communities that already made a commitment ... we were in synch."

In all, 34 grants were dispersed by the Federal Health Resources and Services Administration. The money will provided over three years: $820,000 in 2003, $577,000 this year, and $403,000 in 2005.

The county is visiting other counties to figure out what can be realistically funded with the grant.

"What we don't want to do is create an infrastructure we can't sustain for the long term," Erbe-Hamlin said. "By June, we will start implementing things."

El Dorado County has a number of families who make too much money to qualify for Medi-Cal, but many of them do qualify for Healthy Families.

"Right now, there are people in our county who do not have access to a doctor when they are sick," said Steve Cox, interim coordinator of the El Dorado County Health Access Initiative. "For some families, their only medical care is the hospital emergency room, which impacts everyone and means that the cost of care is doubled or tripled. We want to find these people ... and help them get enrolled."

While the federal grant money hasn't been spent yet, the tobacco money has enabled planning for a number of medical programs to get under way.

Barton is on track to be able to provide psychiatric care for children, give better access to dental care, and establish a low-cost pharmacy program.

"I think access issues on the South Shore are related to people not being aware of what's out there," said Kathy Cocking, director operations at Barton.

To help remedy that problem, the county has a community health Web site that should be online this spring. "We want to hopefully educate on the Web site and add staff who can help people get signed up to existing programs," Cocking said. "A major challenge is created by the language barrier. We're looking at hiring people who are bilingual."

Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or at gcrofton@tahoedailytribune.com.


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