Unity Health Care Celebrates 25 Years of Service

How Unity Health Continues to Provide High-Quality Care for Patients

On a quiet corner along Galen Street in Ward 8 there is a Unity Health Care facility next door to Frederick Douglass’ historic home. On Kenilworth Terrace in Ward 7 a state-of-the-art Unity Health Center opened in October. And in the Upper Cardozo area of Ward 1 a Unity Health Medical Home served 20,000 patients in 2008 alone, including immigrants and homeless men, women, and children. Even in the DC Jail on the border of the Anacostia River in Ward 6 there’s a Unity Health Care center that attends to the medical needs of the inmates.

Over the past 25 years Unity Health has become the District’s leading health-care provider. What sets them apart from the rest? How do they maintain a high quality of service for every patient regardless of their ability to pay?

The Transformation

Unity Health began as a Health Care for the Homeless Project in 1985. In the old Pierce Street Homeless Shelter Dr. Janelle Goetcheus and her staff began treating patients who were living on the street and had no primary care providers. Over the next two decades Unity Health expanded from a provider on a mobile outreach van to setting up shop in emergency homeless shelters to establishing health stations in all eight wards of the city. Their patient base expanded beyond the homeless to embrace at-risk families, Medicaid and Medicare dependents, the working poor, and immigrants. Vincent Keane, president and CEO, says back then partnerships with local hospitals were crucial. “We relied very heavily on our partner hospitals to provide services we couldn’t provide like in-patient care and lab work. Providence [Hospital] arranged admissions to the hospital and procedures. That began our partnership with Providence.”

By 1996 Unity Health was operating on a nearly $4 million budget, receiving cost-based reimbursements for services rendered to Medicare patients, getting discounts for drugs, and recruiting doctors from the National Health Service Corp to work in their clinics around the city. When DC General closed in 2001 the DC Health Care Alliance was formed to meet the needs of the uninsured and underinsured. Unity Health Care was one of the providers selected to support the medical needs of the District’s most underserved populations. Today they continue to be one of the most sought-after health-care providers in the city.

Ward 7 Council Member Yvette Alexander says that Unity Health’s reach into communities where providers were once sparse helps take care of problems before they begin. “This [health center] has been a long time coming for this community. We can definitely bridge the gap with health disparities for people east of the river with clinics like these around. It’s my hope that people will come not only when they’re sick but also for preventative care. That is the key.”   

Upgrading Health Care in the District

Unity Health has come a long way from using homeless shelters to conduct business. Take a look around the city and you will find newly constructed buildings in many locations such as the medical home built in the Parkside community of Ward 7. These facilities offer the latest medical technology including digital dentistry and digital x-rays.  

The federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) has helped to usher in the electronic era of health care. Paper files are becoming a thing of the past and e-records are becoming the more economic and “greener” choice for recordkeeping. Unity Health has adopted the eClinical Works system for patient files, which gives every provider and specialist that works with a patient a chance to review their medical history. Since Unity Health began using the eClinical Works System it has experienced a 21 percent increase in overall provider productivity and realized $12.2 million in additional revenue.

There is also the Patient Portal, which gives patients secure online access to their medical information. Patients can review lab results, medical records, and billing and receive reminders for health maintenance checkups. Keane says electronic health records satisfy a key element of the ACA and address the needs of the community. “Unity’s mission is to improve the health status of our community. Electronic health records are a very important tool in addressing this goal.”

The Not-So-Secret to Success

How does Unity Health continue to rise and grow while serving traditionally indigent people? Donations, awards, and partnerships. Unity Health has been receiving awards since its founding in 1985: millions of dollars from funders such as Blue Cross Blue Shield, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Verizon Foundation, and the Microsoft Corporation to name a few.

First Lady Michelle Obama used Unity Health’s Upper Cardozo location to announce the Obama administration’s support of the Recovery Act, which in part aimed to invest in community health centers. Unity Health received $2.5 million in funding, which they used to completely renovate the Upper Cardozo center. DC Primary Care Association dedicated $15 million from the District’s Tobacco Master Settlement agreement to fund the construction of both the Anacostia and Parkside centers.

Unity Health also receives support for human capital through partnerships with Providence Hospital and A.T. Still University in Arizona. Recently Providence announced that it will be bringing more primary and specialty care physicians to the clinics. This kind of teamwork (not a merger) reduces duplicate testing by sharing eHealth records and allows doctors better to collaborate on how to treat the patient. Amy Freeman, president and CEO of Providence, says that continuing the long-standing partnership with Unity Health will improve health outcomes. “By expanding access to Providence physicians at Unity Health Care we can help patients better manage their diseases, improve outcomes, and ease the financial burden on a strained health-care system by reducing avoidable trips to the emergency room.”

Perseverance and continuity are common themes in the Unity Health Care System. Vincent Keane says teamwork within the company and partnering with other health-care providers around the city gives Unity Health its edge. “I’d love to think there was some strategic formula. But we are just fortunate to have had some very creative staff over the years, and we seize opportunities when they arise. Working together as a team is critical to giving the best care to our patients in all eight wards of the city.”

Candace Y.A. Montague is the health reporter for East of the River magazine.

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