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VOL. 125 | NO. 227 | Monday, November 22, 2010


CCHS, Donlon Help City’s Underserved

NICKY ROBERTSHAW HITCHING | Special to The Memphis News

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When Rick Donlon and three other newly minted doctors came to Memphis in the mid-1990s, they were attracted by circumstances most might not find so attractive: the largest concentration of medically-underserved communities in the state.

Rick Donlon (Photo: Lance Murphey)

But it was perfect for the four friends, who had decided as medical students that being a physician to them meant a focus on doing good, as opposed to pursuing affluence or the prestige of being a specialist. They united in Memphis, and through much toil and prayer, started Christ Community Health Services with a single clinic in South Memphis.

“It may sound odd, but it’s a way to make God big and great,” said Donlon, now CCHS’s top doctor, associate executive director and clinical director of its HIV/AIDS program. “We plop down in one of these underserved neighborhoods, we open the door and we see everyone who comes in.”

Donlon has been instrumental in building CCHS from one cash-strapped clinic to a $20-million-a-year organization with six medical/dental clinics, mobile medical services and four outreach programs. Unlike the Church Health Center, which focuses on the working poor, CCHS provides care to the poorest Memphians. Last year CCHS had more than 100,000 visits from patients, 80 percent of whom are below the poverty line and 40 percent of whom are uninsured.

Donlon’s work has not gone unnoticed by the Briggs Foundation, which this year presented him with its prestigious Thomas W. Briggs Foundation Community Service Award. Previous winners of the Briggs award, which recognizes a local Memphis nonprofit in the field of community service, include Beverly Robertson of the National Civil Rights Museum and Ken Bennett of Street Ministries.

“We felt that he certainly exemplifies the spirit of this award,” said Jo Anne Tilley, executive director of the Briggs Foundation.

CCHS executive director Burt Waller, a former top executive at The Regional Medical Center at Memphis (The MED), relates how during the early years, Donlon once took a lucrative emergency-room job, donating his entire paycheck to CCHS so staff would get paid.

“Rick was the guy who was always at the point of the spear, making sure that they persevered through the disappointments and discouragements,” Waller said.

The Briggs Award recognizes both the individual and the organization, and in this case, both are equally intriguing.

Donlon is energetic and committed, and he concedes that his life looks markedly different from that of your average 46-year-old physician. He’s articulate about the importance of not just taking care of medically underserved neighborhoods, but also being a part of that community. Four years ago he and his wife decided to move their family to the Binghampton neighborhood near a clinic.

“To be living and working and churching in this neighborhood makes us a much more integrated part of the communities we serve,” Donlon said. “That’s the kind of outside-the-exam-room activity that’s got to be part of the solution.”

His approach has gotten the attention of like-minded young doctors, who might not have been attracted to CCHS during the early years of struggle.

“We are able to recruit sharp doctors and other staff from outside the city,” Donlon said. “They visit here, and they see that these are not just our patients. They are the people we know, the people we live with in our neighborhood.”

Equally interesting is the story of how CCHS became a self-sustaining enterprise from its cash-strapped roots. Donlon attributes that success to Waller.

“I mean, he was running the MED,” Donlon said. “To get that kind of experience at that stage of our development was unbelievable.”

For the first few years, Waller was caught up in almost daily cash-flow crises. By 2001 or 2002, cash flow problems had eased, Waller said, and finally he and his staff could plan how to make the operation an economically viable enterprise.

Several factors help CCHS operate in the black. It was designated as a federally qualified health center (for treating the medically underserved) in 2002, which means it gets federal grants each year and is covered for malpractice insurance – a huge expense for clinics – through a federal program.

CCHS also gets paid at a higher rate for its TennCare patients. It helps, too, that rents are low in the impoverished neighborhoods, and that the CCHS upper echelon is willing to work at modest salaries.

“From the earliest days our goal was to not be dependent on philanthropic support for our daily operations,” Waller said. Now that this goal has been accomplished, contributions from supporters (which include the Assisi Foundation, and the city’s two large hospital systems) can be used to open new clinics and for other capital expenditures.

For now, CCHS is busily working toward its newest goal: To double in size over the next five years by opening new clinics, a goal that should be aided by $2.4 million in Industrial Development Board revenue bonds awarded earlier this year.

PROPERTY SALES 74 196 20,828
MORTGAGES 86 244 23,989
BUILDING PERMITS 138 453 43,046
BANKRUPTCIES 64 174 13,354