Commentary: HealthNet casts a wide one

June 9, 2008

Indianapolis is becoming a much more international city.

Consider some of the facts: Central Indiana's Latino population is now 100,000, fifth-fastest-growing in the United States; one in five scientists at Eli Lilly is Chinese; and 2,000 Burmese immigrants live here.

These tidbits and mounds of other information about immigration in our community can be found in the International Center's coffee-table book, "New Faces at the Crossroads: The World in Central Indiana."

The book also contains the stories and beautiful photographs of 30 immigrants from all over the world who have chosen Indianapolis to be their homes and found success here. It paints a compelling picture.

But I was faced with an even more compelling image on a recent tour of a small, cramped, neighborhood health clinic at 2202 W. Morris St., just west of South Belmont Avenue.

On a wall in a hallway was a large, framed, world map covered with red stick pins from top to bottom and side to side, with at least one pin stuck in nearly every country on every continent.

As I and another guest stood staring curiously, a doctor emerged from a nearby office and said, "We've had a patient in here from each one of those places."

The "here" was the Southwest Health Clinic, one of nine facilities owned and operated by HealthNet Inc., a not-for-profit whose mission is to provide health care to Marion County residents regardless of their ability to pay.

Together, the book and the map present very different faces of immigration: the book with the faces of those who have settled and found success, and the clinic with the faces of those who are struggling to make ends meet.

So I learned firsthand that one of the challenges of being an international city is making sure immigrants who aren't so successful have access to basic needs, such as health care.

But this problem isn't limited to immigrants. In fact, the majority of HealthNet's clients are home-grown Americans.

And HealthNet CEO Booker Thomas said there's a misconception that his patients are either unemployed or homeless; in fact, most are "working low-income." Many are under-insured or uninsured because either they can't afford health insurance or their employers don't offer it.

HealthNet was established in 1968 to help those people. The organization now has more than 400 employees and an annual budget just shy of $30 million. In recent years, it has hired several bilingual professionals to help with its growing immigrant client base.

With its facilities operating either at or near capacity all the time, the not-forprofit is expanding. To replace the clinic I visited along with its OB/GYN annex nearby, HealthNet recently purchased a newly renovated Masonic Lodge just blocks away. It also plans to renovate its People's Health & Dental Center at 2340 E. 20th St.

The cost of the expansions and renovations is expected to be in the range of $9 million to $10 million, so Health-Net has embarked on a capital campaign to raise $8 million. The state of Indiana helped kick off the campaign with a $1 million grant.

HealthNet's mission is just what its name implies. Its goal is to catch those who might otherwise fall through the cracks of a health care system whose costs are out of control. It plays a vital role in central Indiana's health care delivery.

Michael Smith, a former WellPoint executive who recently signed on to help the campaign, said, "I'm helping with this project because it touches on my passion: helping to end the cycle of poverty. Men, women and children who are trying to rise out of poverty are severely hampered if they do not have access to quality health care."

My sentiments exactly, whether they are immigrant or home-grown.

Katterjohn is publisher of IBJ.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to ckatterjohn@ibj.com.
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