Hope Family Care Center expands services in urban core neighborhood

Primary care physicians are supposed to be just that — the doctors people go to for their regular needs. However, in some neighborhoods, it’s hard to find them.

At 31st Street and Prospect Avenue in Kansas City, the Hope Family Care Center has been trying to make that option more available. The clinic, now in its fourth year, recently expanded its facility and its staff.

The clinic’s founding doctor, Tom Kettler of Leawood, credits his faith as the inspiration for the clinic.

“The book of James says we should have faith but also have action towards the injustice in our world. That is what I believe we are doing at Hope Family Care Center.”

The clinic is affiliated with The Hope Center, and that agency’s focus on the East Side was also an inspiration, he said.

Although Kettler and several others volunteer each week at the clinic, physician Jeremy Kirchoff had been the only full-time doctor on staff there. For more than a year after the clinic opened in 2009, almost all the staffers were volunteers.

“It brings tears to my eyes … it’s beautiful. It’s kind of overwhelming to see how much it’s grown,” said medical assistant Assunta Johnson, who was the clinic’s first paid employee.

In July, a partnership with Research Medical Center allowed the clinic to bring in a new full-time physician, Northland resident Cymanthia Connell. Clinic leaders hope to have a nurse practitioner join them soon through funding from a federal Health Resources and Services Administration grant.

“This is the kind of setting that I wanted to be in, working in an underserved area, but I didn’t expect there to be so much potential around here,” said Connell, who is originally from Quebec.

Building improvements included an expanded waiting room, four exam rooms, increased space for other procedures, extra storage space and additional administrative offices.

For families seeking medical treatment at the Hope Family Care Center, “being known by the physicians and (knowing) the consistency of what you’re going to get” are important factors, Kettler said. Many people who have chronic problems, such as high blood pressure, need that consistency to keep their conditions stable.

“The way I know we’re doing well is people come in and say, ‘My doctor is Dr. Kirchoff,’” said Kettler, who believes familiarity with a provider inspires confidence among patients.

Connell said she sees progress when patients “come back and (are) doing better, lowering their blood pressure on their own … I think a patient’s sense of ownership (of their condition) is very rewarding.”

Kettler hopes to expand the clinic even further someday, with as many as four providers and more equipment, but for now, he’s happy with what organizers have managed to do in four years.

Patients come to the clinic from all over the Kansas City area, even Johnson County and the Northland, once they recognize it as a place that accepts patients with no insurance or Medicaid. In the future, Kettler would like to draw even more people from surrounding neighborhood.

“Our goal when we started was to try to take care of this portion of the city,” Kettler said.

Executive Director Nathan Jackson said the clinic is still striving to be more well-known and visible in its community. Nestled in a strip mall next to a Dollar Store and a busy bus stop, the clinic is convenient for many residents, but they may not realize it’s there.

“We really want to be accessible to our patients… but we’re in the middle of a shopping center, and we get lost sometimes,” Jackson said.

The clinic has received support from a number of organizations, including its partner organization, The Hope Center, and College Park Family Care in Johnson County, where Kettler works. It also has partnerships with groups such as the REACH Healthcare Foundation and several hospitals.

It’s not a free clinic, but 73 percent of its 4,600 patients are either uninsured or on Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act has made a big impact.

“Essentially what (the ACA) did is match Medicaid primary care rates to Medicare reimbursement levels. Before, it was probably about half of Medicare,” Jackson said.

That reimbursement stays in effect this year and next year.

“For a safety-net clinic like us, where 40 percent of our patients are Medicaid patients, that’s huge,” Jackson said. “That helps us stay sustainable.”