As the population of Polk County continues to grow, Central Florida Health Care is growing with it — with plans to continue well into next year.

The non-profit health care organization started in Frostproof in 1972, providing medical services in a clinic staffed with a doctor and a nurse to the agricultural community in rural southeast Polk County. Within a decade, it moved further south to Highlands and Hardee counties. Now, it operates 14 sites in the three-county region.

“Central Florida Health Care (CFHC) is an essential health care provider in our community,” said Deric Feacher, city manager of Haines City, where CFHC opened a clinic in 2017.  “This organization provides a service the residents of our community need to receive quality health care. We as a city will continue to support their efforts to expand so our residents will have access to health services they would not be able to afford if they were not operating in Haines City.”

“CFHC is committed to our community partnerships and strenghtening those relationships to ensure a health community and reducing health disparities,” said Ann Claussen, CFHC’s Chief Executive Officer, “and will continue to ensure that the organziation provides health care with a heart.”

CFHC provides services beyond basic care, including dental, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, optometry, behavioral health and pharmaceutical. Its 450 doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dentists and technicians care for underserved and vulnerable populations.

More people ages 18 to 64 are insured in Polk County than the state average, but they have difficulty accessing care because of a shortage of primary care doctors. Polk County has 51 such doctors per 100,000 residents compared with an average of 80 in Florida and 88 in the nation.

CFHC is helping address some of those needs. It has partnered with Winter Haven Hospital, which provides medical residencies to students at Florida State University’s College of Medicine. That program will start in July 2020. A year later, CFHC will start a dental residency program, all designed to provide low-cost care.

“Polk County has multiple organizations expanding service line opportunities and they are recruiting physicians from all over the nation,” said Holly Vida, CFHC’s director of marketing and community relations. “The key is that Polk is on the cusp of being an amazing health hub due to its proximity to both Tampa and Orlando. Our location to neighboring metropolitan areas makes us unique and easily accessible.”

A 13-member board of directors provides guidance to the provider, which cared for more than 55,000 patients in 2019 in the three counties. Its doctors have privileges at Winter Haven Hospital, Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center and AdventHealth Sebring. It receives funding from patients who pay on a sliding scale, local sources, reimbursement from insurance companies and the Health Resources and Services Administration.

“We are dedicated to identifying grants and funding opportunities that will support our current endeavors as well as assist us in expanding our services so we can continue to meet the needs of our community,” Vida said.

A Research Hub

Vida said Polk County could become a medical research hub. The infrastructure — five hospitals owned by three independent, not-for-profit organizations and two more facilities in the works — already exists to support multiple research opportunities. In addition, the Central Florida Innovation District along Interstate 4 near Florida Polytechnic University is a key component to increasing opportunities in the area.

“[There is a] robust group of well-organized primary care organizations that could easily be tapped into for research purposes as well,” Vida said. “Bringing health-care centered research would provide an eye to increasing high-paying jobs in the area as well.”

The Future

As the only Federal Qualified Health Center in Polk County, CFHC will continue to focus on being a patient-centered medical home for all patients, Vida said. That’s one reason it recently added one mobile unit to provide primary care services to people who may not have transportation to get to a clinic and another to provide behavioral health care.

Future expansion will continue to focus on accommodating the needs of residents who need help. The CFHC will use an updated community health needs assessment as a guide for future investments. That document aligns community thoughts on what’s available now with what’s needed.

Vida said several community leaders have asked CFHC to consider their area for the next primary care expansion. Expanding in the areas of greatest need with the least number of available physicians for the underinsured and indigent populations would be their first consideration.

Along those lines, the dental residency program scheduled to begin in July 2021 should increase the number of dentists available.

And in times of need, “CFHC will continue to make sure we are agile and have the flexibility to respond to disasters like we are currently facing” with the coronavirus, Vida said.

For additional information about Central Florida Health Care or how to become a partner with the Central Florida Development Council, please contact Lindsay Zimmerman at lindsay@cfdc.org.