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Russian River Health & Wellness Center being built in Guerneville to replace outdated clinic

The nurses’ station at the Russian River Health Center in Guerneville is a cramped room with a computer station on each wall for the center’s lead medical assistant and three nurses.

The room is connected to another medical office, a narrow space that looks more like a hallway. Nurses, doctors and medical assistants deftly navigate their tight quarters, providing health care to some of the most vulnerable residents in Guerneville and other lower Russian River communities.

“It’s not an ideal setting,” said Jerry Elliott, a physician assistant at the Russian River Health Center. “It’s a good building, but the soundproofing isn’t great and the insulation isn’t great.”

The clinic’s modular buildings were erected less than a year after an arson fire in late 2015 destroyed the original Russian River Health Center. Even that building, a converted residence used as a community clinic since 1974, was less than ideal.

Now the Guerneville clinic is going to get a modern home. On Friday, operator West County Health Centers broke ground on the $14 million Russian River Health & Wellness Center and expects to finish construction and open the 10,000-square-foot medical and dental clinic’s doors by late 2020.

“This is absolutely going to be the most stunning building in the Guerneville community once it’s completed,” West County Health Centers CEO Mary Szecsey said.

The health center will be a place where local residents will receive crucial medical services, Szecsey said.

The clinic will be built on a lot just east of the Safeway supermarket in downtown Guerneville, on the north shore of the Russian River. A structure that formerly housed a health food store now sits on the lot. The clinic will be built toward the back of the property and will include three floors. There will be a parking garage on the first floor, medical and behavioral health offices on the second floor and a dental clinic on the third.

The medical center will enable West County Health Centers to consolidate medical, mental and dental health services, said Jason Cunningham, the organization’s chief medical officer. Many of those services are now conducted in separate buildings. The dental offices, for example, were moved to a Sebastopol clinic after the 2015 fire.

“The loss of the health center three years ago was a significant loss for a community that had already gone through many hardships,” Cunningham said.

After the October 2017 wildfires, some residents who lost homes in fire-?affected areas around Santa Rosa moved to the Russian River area, where rents were more affordable. Some of those residents also were affected by the historic flood in late February, he said.

“For us to be able to invest in a building that really will become a community resource for local residents who’ve experienced such hardship just says something about our commitment,” Cunningham said.

West County Health Centers is a federally qualified health center, a classification that allows it to get greater reimbursements for medical services rendered from Medi-Cal, the state’s version of the federal Medicaid program.

Other federal medical centers in Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa Community Health, Sonoma Valley Health Center and Petaluma Health Center, have undergone major expansions and construction projects that have significantly benefited the county’s low-income residents. These contemporary community health centers were made possible by generous federal grants and major fundraising campaigns.

The dream of a building a similar medical complex in Guerneville was temporarily derailed by the 2017 fires. Now, it’s back on track, West County Health Centers officials said.

The organization has so far raised roughly $3.6 million for building costs and collected $1.2 million in insurance payments for the 2015 fire.

Sonoma County’s GMH Builders has been selected for the project and the county recently approved the grading and site work permit. The construction permit is expected to be issued before fall.

West County Health Centers is in the process of receiving approvals for an $8 million federal government-backed construction loan, clinic officials said. The organization needs to raise an additional ?$7.9 million from donors.

Alena Wall, Kaiser Permanente’s community benefit manager in the North Bay, said the West County clinic plays a key role in the health of that community. Wall said Kaiser already has made a $250,000 investment for construction of the clinic.

During the past two years, some of Guerneville’s vulnerable residents have been hurt by multiple disasters, and more needs to be done to address health-related issues caused by the ?February flood.

“We wanted to make sure we’re a partner with fire and flood recovery,” Wall said.

Mary Pauley, 67, of ?Monte Rio, is one of ?3,000 patients who depend on the Russian River Health Center for medical care. In 2018, the center logged 9,123 patient visits for primary care, 2,061 behavioral health patients and 6,047 dental patients.

Pauley, who has been going to the clinic for nine years since she moved to the area, said she’s thrilled the health center staff is going to get a modern clinic where they can practice.

“They are so vital to everybody,” she said Wednesday, shortly after a doctor’s visit. “This place is really important and I’d like to see them in a new facility. It will be really great for our community.”

Les Miller, 52, of Guerneville said he’s been a patient at the local clinic since 1993. A food clerk at the Safeway, Miller receives employer-sponsored health insurance and has the option of going to Kaiser medical offices in Santa Rosa.

But he prefers the Guerneville clinic because he’s never been disappointed by the care he’s received. Miller, who visited the clinic on Wednesday for bloodwork, said having a health center right next to where he works will be convenient for him.

“It can’t get any better than that,” he said. “If I have a doctor’s appointment and my boss wants a notice, I’ll just say, ‘Hold on, let me walk across the parking lot to get that.’?”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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