New health nonprofit opens doors in Merced

11/13/2013 12:00 AM

11/13/2013 12:24 AM

Merced County faces a litany of health care challenges, including access to doctors and a population dealing with obesity, diabetes and other health problems, according to officials.

A Sacramento-based private health foundation is offering solutions by expanding its reach to the San Joaquin Valley. The Sierra Health Foundation on Tuesday launched a new nonprofit organization with an office in downtown Merced.

The nonprofit, called the Center for Health Program Management, will work with existing Merced County health groups to help prevent illnesses and give people access to medical treatment. One of the ways it will do that is by offering $600,000 in grants to health programs throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

“It’s about who has the best ideas,” said Sierra Health Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Chet Hewitt. “We’re going to put our resources behind our mission to help support activities here. We want to be a launching pad,”

Hewitt, along with elected officials such as Merced Mayor Stan Thurston and Merced County District 2 Supervisor Hub Walsh, were on hand Tuesday for the official kick-off at the opening of the new office on Main Street.

Thurston thanked the foundation for selecting downtown Merced as the home of its area office, adding that the city’s health needs are critical and immense.

“Nobody can argue that we need health care,” Thurston said. “Sometimes all it takes is a bit of money to get it started.”

Hewitt said Merced County is behind other areas in the state when it comes to accessing health care, and hopes his organization can help improve Merced’s existing health programs.

“If we want to improve health in this country, we can’t have communities left so far behind,” said Hewitt, adding that the foundation has been trying to move into Merced for about a year.

The partnership between Sierra Health Foundation and Merced County has proven successful through a forum held on Valley Fever last week in Fresno. The foundation paid $25,000 to host the summit, which brought together UC Merced researchers, clinicians and government public health officials to discuss the disease.

“The problem in the region is there hasn’t been much coordination so a lot of issues go under the radar,” said Paul Brown, a UC Merced professor and director of the Health Sciences Research Facility. “It’s extremely important to form partnerships in this community and that’s the approach the Sierra Foundation is talking about.”

Kathleen Grassi, Merced County public health director, said the partnership with the San Joaquin Valley doubles Merced’s available resources for health care.

“The fact that they’ve identified the San Joaquin Valley as an area they want to invest in is great, and it’s doubly good that they’ve identified Merced as a home base,” Grassi said. “Because of their center here, I think they will be able to establish a working relationship with our community-based organizations working on health and also our university.”

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