It is the biggest little secret in Sonoma Valley healthcare circles and it has been hiding in plain sight on West Napa Street since 1992.
And unless you’re one of the 7,000 Sonoma Valley residents who use it every year, there’s a good chance you don’t even know that the Sonoma Valley Community Health Center is a comprehensive, primary care clinic with a federal mandate to treat everyone who walks (or is carried) through the door, from cradle to grave.
"We are," said Marc Schwager, a member of the health center’s board of directors, “a family practice clinic on steroids.”
Added Kathleen Bianchi-Rossi, development director for the center, “Imagine the Hulk, dressed in a lab coat.”
If that image is a reach, try to picture 30,000 patient visits a year, translating into more than 80 visits a day.
Until July, that patient load was funneled through a cramped and crowded complex of less than 9,000 square feet with all of 20 parking spaces. Room at the old health center was so maxed out that the medical lab and the baby scales were in a hallway, patients were seen in administrative offices, and a laundry room was turned into computer workspace.
In the evening, a reception area was used for group therapy, with the outside glass wall partially frosted to block the view from pedestrians passing on the sidewalk.
Now all that has changed. Since moving out of the cramped confines at 430 W. Napa St., the health center has expanded like an accordion puppet into a freshly renovated, 18,621-square-foot building at 19270 Sonoma Highway.
The new facility has 15 exam rooms for family practice, instead of eight, each identical in size and configuration, so that medical team members can move between similar environments. Design elements are impressive.
A new Behavioral Health Services Center has three consulting rooms with a staff member available to intercept new behavioral patients with a “warm hand-off” for people with psychiatric conditions.
There is finally a bona fide medical lab licensed to draw blood, a community education center with two classrooms and, perhaps most notably, given the enormous unmet need, a complete dental clinic with six operatories set to open in September.
But despite the dramatic improvement in healthcare resources, some aspects of the center’s role in healthcare delivery remain a mystery to many Sonomans.
Perhaps the leading issue most often misunderstood is the question of who can access the center. The answer is simple: everyone. While 45 percent of the health center’s patients live at or below the poverty line, that means that more than half don’t. Marc Schwager, the board member, is a patient, and so is Cheryl Mariscal Hergert, a relatively new arrival who desperately needed a doctor last January and couldn’t find one.
As she wrote to the Index-Tribune, “I figured the best last-minute option was SVCHC. I showed up at the Health Center without an appointment. Amazingly, I was able to see a physician within 30 minutes.”
Part of what makes the community health center model work is the fact that health centers are reimbursed by Medicare and Medi-Cal at a higher rate than hospitals. But in exchange, they are required to accept every patient who arrives seeking health care, and they must care for those patients for, essentially, as long as they live.