Dedication this week of the new Ruth P. Field Medical Center in Okatie is a sign of good health for the Lowcountry.
Beaufort-Jasper-Hampton Comprehensive Services now has a new flagship for its network of eight community health clinics in three counties. It serves about 18,000 patients; slightly more than half are uninsured, and about three-quarters live at poverty level.
Community health care centers like this have become an increasingly important means to address the nation's primary health care needs, providing affordable health services at more than 9,000 sites across all 50 states, serving more than 22 million patients.
In our community, the new $6.2 million, 26,500-square-foot health center in the Chelsea community replaces a smaller, worn out building. By more than doubling the number of examination rooms and dental offices, the clinic can now see more patients and reduce wait times. It also can provide additional services.
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U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., was the keynote speaker at Sunday's ribbon-cutting ceremony. Clyburn is credited with shepherding money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to the local agency and other community health care providers statewide.
The new building still honors the agency's original benefactor, Ruth P. Field, whose Chicago retailing and publishing family owned nearby Chelsea Plantation. She is credited with donating the land for the center on S.C. 170 near Callawassie Island.
The handsome new building is a sign of good health because it reflects the survival and growth of an ambitious idea that came to life in 1970.
At the time, Beaufort and Jasper counties drew attention nationally for rank poverty, hunger and children infested with worms.
Dr. Donald E. Gatch, who practiced in Beaufort and Bluffton, drew attention to the problem through an article with stunning photographs in Esquire magazine, as well as in other ways.
U.S. Sen. Ernest F. "Fritz" Hollings conducted a "hunger tour," going into communities statewide with reporters and photographers to show the world hunger and substandard living conditions in America. The face of poverty, he discovered, was largely the face of children and elderly women.
Testimony by Thomas C. Barnwell Jr. of Hilton Head Island and others in February 1969 before the U.S. Senate's Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs further documented the problem.
Barnwell then became the leader for one potential solution -- creating Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Services. He faced local opposition, but also received a lot of help from many people, such as Leroy Edgar Browne Jr. of St. Helena Island.
The agency was an early entry in a fledgling national movement for neighborhood health centers. It began with three clinics in 1965 as a response to the civil rights movement and the nation's "war on poverty," led by President Lyndon Johnson.
The local agency broke the mold by tackling problems that led to illness. Living conditions and a patient's total environment had to be addressed, and agency officials set about installing new septic tanks, digging deep wells and pushing for more and better water systems for the poor. In addition to doctors, it had community environmental workers and a team of home health aides.
This center -- and others like it around the nation -- did something else significant: It put African-Americans at the table in leadership positions to tackle health care issues plaguing those who could least afford health care and those who had no health care available.
With Barnwell as its first director, the agency started its growth with the motto that "health is a right, not a privilege."
Challenges today are different. The agency's clientele has changed. Health care options for the poor have grown. But affordable primary health care remains a problem, and we hope that the Ruth P. Field Center signifies progress in meeting that need.