Medical, dental, mental health care under one roof as Northwest Human Services expands flagship clinic

Paul Logan remembers a patient at the Northwest Human Services clinic whose main health concern was going back to jail.

Logan, the CEO of the Salem health center, said the man had a pending hearing related to a criminal case and wasn’t sure what he needed to do to comply with court orders.

“He didn’t really understand what was required of him,” Logan said. “He was just distraught – he said, ‘If they take me back to jail, I’ll kill myself.’”

His health care team was able to connect him with an attorney who works a few hours a week at the clinic — a unique offering that’s part of Northwest Human Services’ expansive view of what counts as health care.

Legal aid is one of many services offered at the flagship West Salem clinic, which recently expanded to allow better coordination between medical, dental, mental health care and social services for the 12,800 Marion and Polk county residents who rely on the health center.

The expanded clinic at 1233 Edgewater St. is now nearly 57,000 square feet, adding 31 exam rooms as part of a $13 million retrofit.

The organization held an open house June 6 to celebrate the project’s completion after about five years of planning, construction and Covid delays. It will allow for about 6,000 more appointments per year.

Northwest Human Services is a federally-qualified health center which means they provide care regardless of ability to pay and commonly have patients who are uninsured or underinsured. One in five of their patients lack housing, and legal issues, debt, problems with landlords and other life stressors frequently impact their health.

“We are the safety net to pick up a lot of those people,” Logan said.

The organization opened its first clinic in the 1970s and has grown rapidly in the past five years, with the share of homeless patients in particular increasing.

Paul Logan, CEO of Northwest Human Services, stands outside the expanded West Salem Clinic (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

But providers struggled to offer care in a smaller clinic space separated from the dental and mental health offices, clinic manager Maggie Erpelding said. Patients had to go to different buildings to make appointments and often got confused about where they needed to be.

The front entrance didn’t have a covered area for patients to get dropped off.

“If they needed wheelchairs they couldn’t always park close to the building. They’d wait outside in the rain sometimes,” Erpelding said.

And the clinic was running out of space for providers to see patients and meet.

“People were working on top of each other,” Erpelding said.

The new building is intended to both expand care and make it easier for patients to get the help they need without extra travel.

Three exam rooms have negative air flow, meaning air from inside the room won’t filter out into the clinic hallway. Those rooms are intended to treat people with respiratory illnesses without spreading viruses in the clinic.

An expanded dental space has allowed the clinic to hire a new dentist and hygienist, doubling the care they can offer. That’s a major need among patients who often wait until dental problems become serious to seek care.

The clinic also employs 15 primary care providers, 11 mental health therapists, four psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners, and two clinic pharmacists. While they don’t dispense medications on-site, they can review the many drugs a patient may be taking and help patients sort out missed prescriptions or other issues.

Medical providers work in an added section of Northwest Human Services’ West Salem Clinic on June 2, 2023 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Conference rooms in the clinic allow Oregon State University’s extension service to offer cooking classes in both English and Spanish.

Patients may need help with past due hospital bills, housing or other issues outside the purview of a traditional clinic that still impact their health. A team who works out of the clinic helps connect them with services that can address those needs.

“Some people just need a phone number and they’re able to connect on their own,” said Alicia Cowlthorp, complex care manager. Others need someone from the clinic to go with them to an appointment elsewhere.

With more services now in the same building, Erpelding said it will be easier for providers to meet the needs of patients who have complex health problems. Appointments for all providers can be scheduled at the front desk in the main lobby.

“It has allowed us to integrate all of this under one roof,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.