“At Erie, we don’t say ‘clinic’ too much,” said Dr. Lee Francis, President and CEO of Erie Family Health Centers. “’Clinic,’ in my mind, is a word that conjures up ‘take a number, sit in an old, rusty chair, and you may or may not be seen that day.’ And everyone knows that’s not our model.”
Francis stood in Erie’s recently expanded location in Evanston, Illinois, addressing an audience of clients, staff, civic leaders, and project partners, including IFF. Since 2015, IFF has served as Erie’s owner representative for four different facility renovations, helping Erie navigate the design and construction processes.
The large, light-filled room where Francis spoke underscored his point about Erie’s patient-friendly approach. Designed to house community events and trainings, the room’s cathedral ceiling, plentiful windows, and inviting decor all send a clear message: Everyone is welcome here – and everyone deserves high-quality health care.
Following Francis, Anjanay Lawrence took her turn at the podium. An Erie client for the past four years, she and her son are among the 75,000 patients that Erie serves annually from its 13 Chicagoland locations, providing one-stop medical, dental, and behavioral health care regardless of people’s insurance status, immigration status, or ability to pay.
“Erie has made my job as a single mother and student smoother,” Lawrence said. “I’ve used Erie’s services for most of my personal needs for health and dental care, and I know my son is getting the best care from his pediatrician. I’m excited that Erie is expanding and can now serve more people like me and my son.”
The Evanston/Skokie community shares Lawrence’s excitement. Since Erie opened a location there in 2012, the number of patients served – 98% of whom are low-income – has increased by an eye-popping 813%.
As George Van Deuson, Mayor of Skokie, noted at the expansion’s ribbon-cutting, “[Chicago’s] North Shore usually is thought of as one of the wealthiest places in the United States, but we do have people who need our assistance, and particularly health care.”
With the 8,500-square-foot expansion and addition of 17 new exam rooms, Erie’s Evanston/Skokie Center will double its footprint and be able to accommodate 4,000 more patients over the next two to three years – up from the 6,800 patients the center currently serves every year.
However, increasing patients and visits isn’t Erie’s only goal. The organization also aims to make those visits transformative. For example, as detailed on Erie’s blog, one family finally received a proper diagnosis for their 12-year-old daughter at the Evanston/Skokie Center. She’d been having trouble breathing. Lacking a primary care physician, the family had been rushing her to the emergency room and receiving antibiotics whenever she had an episode. But at Erie, the family formed an ongoing relationship with a primary pediatrician, who was able to spot a pattern and correctly diagnose the child’s condition as asthma.
Erie’s outstanding work hasn’t gone unnoticed by equally community-minded funders. In the case of the Evanston/Skokie expansion, Erie received a total of $1.7 million in capital funding from the Finnegan Family Foundation and NorthShore University HealthSystem. Both are longtime Erie partners who share Erie’s values and have watched its model flourish.
“The Finnegan Family Foundation believes in supporting strong communities, and we also believe in scaling what works,” Paul Finnegan noted.
Erie’s recipe for sustainable growth
With 13 locations under its belt, Erie knows a thing or two about how to position itself for celebratory ribbon-cuttings. Over time, the organization’s leaders have devised a multi-pronged approach to growth marked by long-term planning, strong partnerships, and continuous improvement.
“We really push ourselves to think about what things will look like five years from now,” says Amy Valukas, Erie’s Chief Operating Officer.
That emphasis on planning helped Erie start laying the groundwork for its expansion in Evanston several years ago. When signing its lease in 2012, the organization had the foresight to add in a right-of-first-refusal clause for adjacent space, saving its staff from having to find and completely build out a new facility. When the renter next door left, Erie took action. Plus, Erie purposefully built a reception area with additional capacity, ensuring there would be room to grow.
Valukas also gets civic leaders and health center staff involved early and often. Doing so helps Erie avoid delays and misunderstandings over the course of the project. Elected officials can ensure that municipal staff respond to project needs promptly to help stay on schedule. And staff members with relevant expertise know better than anyone which design choices make sense given their day-to-day.
For us, having a team mutually invested in our mission is so important”, explains Valukas. “We’re nonprofits, so of course cost matters. But so does culture fit.”
“Sometimes the newest, fanciest thing is not going to be something my facilities team can fully build into their preventive maintenance and compliance schedule,” Valukas explains. “We make sure those teams are highly engaged and understand the systems we’re putting in – because trust me, no one wants me to be the one deciding what to do when the HVAC fails.”
The second big ingredient to Erie’s success in Evanston and elsewhere: Selecting the right partners. “For us, having a team mutually invested in our mission is so important,” explains Valukas. “We’re nonprofits, so of course cost matters. But so does culture fit.”
Specifically, Erie seeks out partners who are deeply familiar with the nonprofit and health care sectors. Knowledgeable, mission-driven partners will prioritize critical factors like designing for infection control and replicability of the exam rooms’ layout, which ensures that any Erie staff member from any facility can walk in and perform their job smoothly.
As the owner’s representative for the Evanston/Skokie expansion, IFF’s Dominic LoGalbo collaborated with Eckenhoff Saunders Architects, Reed Construction, and Erie’s internal team to complete the work – without shutting down the health center’s regular operations one wall away. Health care can’t be put on hold; when Erie renovates a facility, Valukas explains, “Stopping or closing services is not an option.”
“IFF played a huge role in terms of the project management piece,” she says. “Also, compliance is complex for nonprofits – there are issues related to federal funding [Erie is a Federally Qualified Health Center, or FQHC partially funded by the federal government], receiving new market tax credits, that kind of thing. We wanted an expert who could be a second set of eyes and help us think through that complexity.”
LoGalbo is equally appreciative of Erie. “Erie has great leadership,” he says. “They’re always looking at what they do and how they can do it better. And their facilities staff goes the extra mile to minimize the impact on the medical team and patients.”
That is true in terms of both the physical spaces Erie creates and the programs it offers. For example, in Evanston/Skokie, based on feedback from staff on their workflow, Erie set up its care team stations with a bit more space to enable easier collaboration. And on the program side, Erie and one of its funders, NorthShore University HealthSystem, launched an innovative new residency program with the community’s future in mind. Eighteen doctors who are family medicine residents in the NorthShore University of Chicago Family Medicine Residency Program will complete their outpatient training at Erie’s Evanston/Skokie Center.
The hope is those physicians will be inspired to continue serving people facing high barriers to health care. As CEO Lee Francis explained, “Together, we’ll start developing the next generation of family medicine physicians who can take care of populations in need.”