WILDWOOD — Opening a nonprofit health care center at the site of the city’s Housing Authority building will help many of the city’s poorer residents who cannot afford medical care, supporters of the project say.
But a former city commissioner questioned whether the center, which expects to open in November, will draw more poor people to the island.
During a public event held Wednesday at the Wildwood Housing Authority, CompleteCare Health Network presented architectural drawings that showed how existing office and meeting space will be renovated into a 4,500-square-foot facility complete with six exam rooms, a dental-care area and other amenities.
The agency, which operates 14 medical and dental facilities and four school-based health offices in Cumberland, Gloucester and Cape May counties, received a $1 million federal grant to open the center in Wildwood, an area classified by the federal government as medically underserved.
Such areas are determined by an evaluation of statistics,including the ratio of primary medical care physicians per 1,000 people, infant mortality rates, the percentage of the population with incomes below the poverty level and the percentage of the population age 65 or older.
“It is very much needed,” said Dr. Cheryl Bettigole, CompleteCare’s chief medical officer.
Twenty-eight percent of the city’s residents have no health insurance and more than half of the city’s population is well below the poverty line.
“Our mission as a health center is to take care of everyone,” she said.
The Wildwood location would offer primary medical care and dental services, with extended service hours and payment on a sliding scale based on family size and income.
But former Wildwood City Commissioner Al Brannen said during Wednesday’s presentation that the city has no need for what CompleteCare hopes to do.
“I see this as inviting poor people to come here and feed off your clinic,” Brannen said. “We are a tourist community. We can’t be everything to everybody. It’s going to hurt us.”
He also opposed plans for the center when they were proposed in early 2011. At that time, in a 2-1 vote, City Commission lent its support to the plan.
Curtis Edwards, vice president of community services and government relations for CompleteCare, said the agency’s Middle Township location already treats about 1,400 people annually from Wildwood.
Bettigole said the center would be a user-friendly, clean, quality health care facility.
The center would provide care to working families, many of which do not have health insurance, she said.
Bettigole said the center would even be a benefit to the island’s tourist population, giving them an alternative to having to make a trip to the emergency room for treatment of many injuries.
“That’s going to make a difference to the tourist population,” she said, adding she never heard of anyone moving to a new town for a clinic.
Bettigole, in response to an audience question, added that the health center would not operate a pharmacy. “We won’t be dispensing drugs at this location,” she said.
Cindy Fritz, school nurse at Glenwood Avenue Elementary School, said she supports the decision to bring a new health care center to Wildwood.
“There’s a tremendous need, especially for the schoolchildren,” Fritz said. “I think it’s just positive for the community.”
Kim Belasco, director of nursing at Sandman Towers, which is operated by the Housing Authority, said she also sees a need for affordable, accessible health care here.
“It’s necessary, and I think it will be appreciated by a lot of people,” she said.
The Housing Authority offers 100 units in Sandman Towers and another 70 units in Commissioners Court.
Edwards said CompleteCare is also negotiating an amount it would provide to the city as a payment in lieu of taxes. The Housing Authority already pays $13,937 to the city in lieu of taxes on the property, and anything CompleteCare pays would be in addition to that amount.
Commissioner Pete Byron asked how the center would affect the bottom line for the island’s doctors. Edwards said CompleteCare had reached out to the island’s physicians to make them aware of their services and that it was not in competition with them.
Byron, who said he was still somewhat on the fence about the issue, encouraged Edwards to get the word out about the center’s plans.
“You really need to drive home what it’s really about,” he said.
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