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East Hampton health center turns 10

Fresa Cruceta, a clerk at the East Hampton

Fresa Cruceta, a clerk at the East Hampton Healthcare Center, helps a customer in the in-house pharmacy. (June 1, 2012) Credit: Erin Geismar

Sheila Rogers remembers a terrible tick bite she once received that required medical attention. It was during a busy summer month where she lives in East Hampton and her doctor -- the only general practitioner in East Hampton -- was on vacation. Depending on summer traffic, it can take up to an hour to get to Southampton Hospital, but that’s where she headed for treatment.

“Using the emergency room as your primary care doctor, that’s really pretty terrible,” said Rogers, who later became the director of the East Hampton Healthcare Center, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Rogers’ experience was the norm for the people of East Hampton before the health care center opened the doors of an 18,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art building on Pantigo Road in 2002. The building took years of planning and fundraising, and was the initiative of a small group of concerned residents that formed the East Hampton Healthcare Foundation in 1998.

Henry Murray, chairman of the foundation’s board of trustees, said it started with a quality of life survey distributed around East Hampton by the Village Preservation Society, of which he was a member. That survey showed that access to medical care was the No. 1 need of the people who responded, with more than 40 percent of them traveling even farther west than Southampton for healthcare.

“We didn’t really know what we were going to do,” Murray said. “We just knew we had to do something.”

In the following years, the need for a center grew even stronger. The first plan was to approach Southampton Hospital about opening a satellite in East Hampton. While the hospital took steps toward doing so, and even purchased property in East Hampton, it soon ran into a financial deficit and backed out.

At the same time, the small building complex where East Hampton’s only doctors -- Primary Care Physician Michael Israel and Pediatrician Gail Schonfeld -- practiced, was being sold.

“Things were sort of at a crisis around here,” Schonfeld said, adding that she was preparing to leave town because she couldn’t find office space to work in. “They were going to boot us out. It was really pretty frustrating. There was no affordable space.”

Rogers said that’s when the healthcare foundation moved into action. It purchased the property from Southampton Hospital in 1999, and by mid-2000 was breaking ground on the new center.

Rogers said when the center was completed, the board hoped to rent 35 percent of the space in the first year, and fill it gradually. But upon opening, it was already 90 percent rented.

Rogers said the community has always been an integral part of seeing the dream of the center to fruition. Since the foundation’s inception, it has raised more than $13 million from within the community -- money that has gone both to the initial costs of the building and to add services through the years.

Today, the health center includes not just physicians across specialities, but also a pharmacy, a lab run by Southampton Hospital and space for other health agencies offering services like Medicaid enrollment.

In 2008, the foundation also opened East Hampton Urgent Care, a walk-in clinic that serves as an alternative to the hospital emergency room.

“We all say, ‘What did we ever do before we had this?’” Rogers said. “This has become such an important core of services in the community that we can’t even imagine what it was like before.”

As a registered non-profit organization, the healthcare foundation also has the ability to help underwrite the cost of healthcare to the uninsured and the underinsured.

In 2011, a voucher program that provides care for those that don’t qualify for other insurance programs provided primary care visits for 3,000 patients.

Jim Forbes, who lives in Manhattan and owns a second home in East Hampton, joined the board of trustees four years ago. A healthcare investment banker for UBS, Forbes said the most impressive thing about the East Hampton Healthcare Center is its ability to provide healthcare for community members in all walks of life and levels on the income scale.

“I can’t think of anything like this in the United States that’s focused on a community and, regardless of your ability to pay, we’re going to take care of you,” he said. “It’s truly remarkable.”

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