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The St. Thomas Community Health Center provide quality care (quickly) for local residentsSince Katrina, the St. Thomas Community Health Center has provided vital care to people who lack adequate insurance. Led by Dr. Donald T. Erwin, the clinic in the Lower Garden District attends to the medical needs of a growing number of patients. Optometrist Donald Costello, director of the eye clinic, spoke to New Orleans Living about the unique services offered by this low-cost health center.

How did the St. Thomas Community Health Center change after Katrina?

Before the storm, Dr. Erwin was on the board and his wife, Dr. Mary Abell, was the medical director. After Katrina, the people who ran the clinic did not return. Dr. Erwin and Dr. Abell had the key to the place. Charity [Hospital] was closed, so they walked in here and started seeing patients in October 2005. People took note of this and started to help them. Two of the people that helped were Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, who gave the clinic $500,000 from the Katrina Fund.

Are most of the clinic’s patients drawn from the St. Thomas neighborhood in the Lower Garden District?

After Katrina, the number of ZIP codes served by this clinic has gone up incredibly. So basically we’re serving a lot wider area. We used to just serve St. Thomas. Also prior to Katrina, this clinic saw 10 to 20 patients a day. After Katrina it’s 120 patients a day. That’s largely due to the fact that Charity has closed down.

What kind of people do you see?

Our average patient is a working person who either can’t afford insurance with their company, isn’t offered insurance or has inadequate insurance. It’s really the working poor.

What options does this group have for basic medical care?

Not many. For non-emergency care they can go to University Hospital, where they’ll wait up to 12 hours to get free, routine care. Their other option is to travel to Houma, where there is a free clinic called the Chabert Medical Center. There are also other community health-care clinics throughout the city that provide some level of care. And then there is us. The big goal of the St. Thomas Community Health Center is to serve people with quality care quickly. We don’t want them to wait 12 hours to see a doctor, and we don’t want them to wait three months for an appointment.

What range of services does the St. Thomas Community Health Center offer?

We have primary care, eyes, pediatrics, women’s services, and we have some referral base internally. We have a cardiologist who comes in a couple days a week. We have rheumatology come in once a week. And we deal a lot with asthma here.

What happens when the patients need more specialized care?

In the eye clinic, for example, we’re supported by a foundation called the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Foundation, or EENT. It was set up through the sale of the Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital, which was on Claiborne and Napoleon. They sold that building in the early ’90s and used the money to establish it. I can take a patient, for example, who needs surgery, send them to a private practitioner that same day to get them treated and the EENT will usually pay for all the surgery. You have criteria that must be met to get help from the EENT, but it’s not ridiculous criteria where you can’t make anything. It’s for working people who don’t have insurance or don’t have adequate insurance. They support us, support me, pay for my equipment, pay for the glasses for the patients—our patients only have to pay $20 for a $250 pair of glasses.

Are you the only eye clinic that serves this population?

In New Orleans we are. I believe Jefferson Parish has one or two very small-time ones. For example, there is a clinic in Avondale, where I believe a private practitioner will come in a half day a week with portable equipment. But if there is a problem, they usually refer the patient to us. All the other clinics refer into us for the eyes.

You worked at Ochsner for many years. How is your practice different now at the St. Thomas Community Health Center?

You’re just doing it the way you’re supposed to do it. Here, I see a patient all the way through. I deal with their insurance or lack of insurance. I deal with getting them referred in or out. I look for money to pay for them if they don’t have money. I can walk down the hall if someone has a systemic problem and talk to a doctor, and that doctor is going to see them right there. It’s more than just eye care now. It’s person care.

For more information about the St. Thomas Community Health Center, visit www.stthomaschc.org.