In what is believed to be the first clinic of its kind in Sonoma County, natural frozen-food maker Amy's Kitchen has opened a health care facility across the street from its Santa Rosa plant to treat workers and their families.

The clinic, which is funded by the company, is designed to expand workers' access to medical care while saving money for Amy's Kitchen by improving the health of its employees.

Amy's Family Health Center is available to any worker with company health coverage, as well as their immediate families. For a $5 co-pay, patients can receive physical exams and immunizations, cold and flu treatments and management of such chronic conditions as diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure.

It was created to supplement, not replace, the company's two health insurance options, Blue Cross and Kaiser Permanente, which are offered to employees who work more than 24 hours each week. And dependents may use the center even if they aren't covered under the worker's health insurance plan.

The center's aim is to improve health by making it more convenient and affordable to visit a doctor. The physician and the center's licensed vocational nurse speak Spanish as well as English.

"What we're doing is we're lowering some of the barriers," said Dr. Bruce Heller, the center's physician.

Already, Heller said, many of his mostly Latino patients say they haven't seen a doctor in years. The center will try to change such behavior and encourage patients not to put off seeking medical help until a health problem has grown severe.

"Our goal is to get them while they're feeling well," he said.

Petaluma-based Amy's Kitchen has about 1,800 employees in the United States and England, including 765 in Santa Rosa.

The company will hold a ceremony today to celebrate the opening of the new health center just off Northpoint Parkway. Last month it opened a similar clinic at its plant in Medford, Ore.

In an interview last spring, owners Andy and Rachel Berliner said the centers are intended to help workers live more healthy lives.

In the long run, Andy Berliner said, the center "should be a financial benefit to us because you're making your workforce healthier. You're having a lot less serious medical problems."

Officials at the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, the county Economic Development Board and the Sonoma County Medical Association were unaware of a similar clinic run for a private employer here.

"Amy's is often ahead of the curve in so many ways," said Ben Stone, director of the county Economic Development Board.

The company doctor has long been a part of American medicine. Kaiser Permanente traces its roots back to company-owned hospitals set up to treat workers and their families at the World War II-era shipyards and steel mills of the Kaiser Steel corporation.

Amy's clinic is run by QuadMed of Sussex, Wis., a provider of onsite clinics to various Fortune 1000 companies. Heller is an employee of QuadMed. Amy's Kitchen did not disclose the cost of operating the centers.

To preserve confidentiality, employees will use the health center for non-work injuries, while any workers' compensation cases will be handled by a different medical company, said Amy's human resources director Cindy Gillespie.

The center has been open about two weeks. Already worker Fernando Godinez has made three visits.

Godinez, 29, a former cook who now helps coordinate the daily schedule for cooking and assembling the immense batches of food at the plant, said he first went to the health center for an ear problem.

He has been back for cholesterol testing and a consultation on how to improve his diet and exercise more. He'll return in two months to monitor his progress.

"It's very convenient to have it here, because it's just across the street," Godinez said.

Workers with Blue Cross coverage can designate Heller as their primary care physician and have his services reimbursed by health insurance. Dependents without insurance and more-serious medical issues will be referred to other physicians or clinics.

The company's goal over the next year is for all covered employees to have a 60-minute physical exam with the doctor. While individual patient information will remain private, the collected data will help Amy's Kitchen determine what sorts of classes, counseling and support groups might be offered to further improve worker health.

Typical appointments are 30 minutes each, allowing the doctor extra time to learn about patients' health needs. The center will keep open time each day for emergency appointments.

The message, said Gillespie, is "there's always time to talk about your health and how to improve it."

Pedro Toledo, director of community and government relations at Redwood Community Health Coalition, said Amy's is making a difference in "a patient population that traditionally has been underserved."

"Keeping their employees healthy makes great business sense," Toledo said. "The fact that they're willing to see the uninsured and underinsured dependents will be a great community benefit."