City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) cracks a joke in a gathering of Southwest Side neighborhood/homeowner associations at Port San Antonio on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz
City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) cracks a joke in a gathering of Southwest Side neighborhood/homeowner associations at Port San Antonio. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

CentroMed, the local nonprofit health care organization that focuses on serving vulnerable populations, plans to open a primary care clinic and wellness center in October 2017 that will serve one of the most underserved communities in Bexar County.

City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and Marina Gonzales, CentroMed executive manager for special projects, briefed more than 30 residents on the project at a quarterly gathering of homeowner and neighborhood associations in Bexar County Precinct 4 at Port San Antonio Monday. U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) also was on hand to give a brief Congressional action update to residents.

CentroMed launched a capital campaign last September with an initial $3 million fundraising goal to support the construction of a primary care clinic, which would be located in the Indian Creek neighborhood, part of a federally designated and medically underserved area where the number of health care professionals is in short supply.

The area that includes the Indian Creek, Sky Harbor, and Five Palm neighborhoods is among the city’s poorest communities, according to the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. The area also has one of the city’s highest teenage pregnancy rates.

Saldaña said he noticed the lag in the area’s community health care system back in 2012, when he went on a ride-along with a pair of EMTs in the neighborhood. They responded to a call about a young boy who was having an epileptic seizure.

“One of the areas we want to focus on is 78242,” he said. “If you were to look at the 78242 zip code and first identify the amount of underinsured/uninsured patients in the population, it is much larger than many parts of the city.”

For many uninsured/underinsured individuals, such as the family of the epileptic boy, their first course of action is to call 9-1-1 for assistance because they are not able to afford or access a primary care physician immediately, Saldaña said.

“That comes as a terrible cost to taxpayers, a terrible cost to the family,” he added. “Suddenly, something that was minor can turn into an emergency and huge bills get stacked on for families who are trying to get through life.”

Although CentroMed has other facilities on the Southside, community leaders and organizations such as COPS/Metro Alliance have constantly expressed for years that getting around active and former military bases to get to such healthcare facilities is an issue for neighborhood residents, especially those without their own transportation.

Since CentroMed is a nonprofit, it has the resources – including federal funds – to expand its medical care mission, Saldaña said, but no money to build a new physical facility. The nonprofit initially sought help from the City to locate an existing space in the Indian Creek area for the facility, but to no avail. When CentroMed bought an undeveloped six-acre tract on Ray Ellison Boulevard and Old Pearsall Road near Alan Shepard Middle School, Bexar County stepped in to lend a hand.

The County agreed to lease the property for $1 per year as part of a 30-year pact approved by Bexar County Commissioners earlier this summer. Seeing the larger scale of unmet medical needs in the neighborhood, CentroMed widened its scope, added a wellness center component, and increased its total fundraising goal to $9 million for construction of both the clinic and center.

“There is not a single primary care provider in the 78242 zip code,” Gonzales said. “When we found that out, we said we’ve got to do something to provide medical services so that people, such as the child with epilepsy, don’t have to call 9-1-1 to access medical care.”

As part of the agreement, the County will contribute $3 million toward construction of the 18,000 sq. ft. wellness center and CentroMed will raise money for the rest of the construction expenses. The center will have a gymnasium and fitness and nutrition classes, which will all be accessible to county residents for a fee. It will be located next to the 15,000 sq. ft. primary care clinic, which will include family medicine, women’s health, and pediatric and dental services.

CentroMed has raised nearly 70% of the total cost so far, which includes money from the County, a Community Development Block Grant, the federal Health Infrastructure Investment Program, and other nonprofits. CentroMed officials said they hope to open the facilities in October 2017, one year after construction is expected to start.

The new CentroMed facility will offer a holistic, integrated program, Gonzales said, and the physical campus space and its operating hours will be flexible to meet increasing demand for services in the future.

“If the doctor is telling you, ‘okay, you’ve got to get some physical fitness in,’ we’ve tailored that in next door and we can make sure those two programs are talking to each other so that you’re getting the best care overall,” she said.

CentroMed also is working with VIA Metropolitan Transit to try and improve bus and VIATrans service in the neighborhood to make the new CentroMed campus more accessible to area residents, Gonzales said. The nonprofit already works with organizations such as Southwest Outreach for Older People (SWOOP), which offer rides to disabled individuals, underserved seniors, and their caregivers to healthcare facilities.

In addition to the CentroMed news, Saldaña briefed the residents on significant City news, including the mediated settlement between the City and the San Antonio Police Officers Association (SAPOA). He joined Castro at a news conference at City Hall earlier on Monday afternoon where they both shared concerns that the City’s and police union’s new collective bargaining agreement, which follows more than two years of heated on-and-off negotiations, lacks accountability in police disciplinary matters.

(Read More: Castros Lead Call to Reject Police Contract)

The contract language in Article 28 Section 19, which changes and limits the use of police discipline records, does a “disservice” to the community, Saldaña said. Some organizations concerned with police-community relations locally and elsewhere also have sounded off on the new agreement.

Saldaña said he hopes his Council colleagues will seriously consider amending the related verbiage in the agreement when it considers and votes on the contract during the forthcoming City Council meeting on Thursday, Sept. 1. Increasing accountability within the San Antonio Police Department, he added, could help to enhance residents’ trust in their local government.

“Let’s change the language to make the police more accountable,” he said.

U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) listens to an attendee in a gathering of Southwest Side neighborhood/homeowner associations at Port San Antonio on Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz
U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) listens to an attendee during a gathering of Southwest side neighborhood/homeowner associations at Port San Antonio. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Castro did not provide further comment on the police union contract, but said in an earlier statement that police accountability reform is about “saving lives.”

“We are living in a time when technology has revealed the tensions and conflicts between police and citizens. We cannot turn away or pretend that it doesn’t happen in San Antonio,” Castro stated. “This contract should address use of force and bad conduct accountability.”

The fact that Castro joined Saldaña at two local events on Monday fueled speculation that the Congressman was showing interest in supporting a possible mayoral campaign by Saldaña, a two-term Council member, in 2017.

Before leaving Monday evening, Castro told the Rivard Report that Saldaña appears to be wholly concentrated on representing District 4.

“I think he’s focused on serving on the City Council,” he said. “I know the mayoral election is next May, but I think it’s too early to talk about that.”

Top image: City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) cracks a joke during a gathering of Southwest side neighborhood/homeowner associations at Port San Antonio.  Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.