El Rio Health – Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow – Serving Our Community

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Written by: Nancy Johnson, RN, Ph.D., CEO

Nearly 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson supported legislation that supported the creation of community health centers across the nation—with El Rio Community Health Center being one of the first.  A successful partnership between various west side neighborhoods and the University of Arizona College of Medicine created the first El Rio Health Center at 839 W Congress St.  Today, eleven El Rio Health Center campuses serve the Tucson community providing medical, dental, behavioral health and many other health services for over 107,000 individuals who call El Rio their health home.

Since inception, El Rio’s mission has been and continues to be: to provide comprehensive, accessible, affordable, quality, and compassionate care—and that vision is seen through our over 1200 employees who see El Rio as an employer of choice. No patient is turned away from El Rio and last year, over $11 million in charity care was provided for community members. In addition, El Rio provides care for all community members including those with insurance, Medicare, or those who may be uninsured. Our many health and wellness programs, classes and outreach services illustrate our commitment to prevention and health improvement through our care of over 35,000 children and 72,000 adults.

As we approach our 50th anniversary in 2020, we celebrate the recent opening of the new El Rio Cherrybell Health Center located on the southeast corner of 22nd St and Kino Parkway.  This project was funded through a $16 million New Market Tax Credit from the Corporation for Supportive Housing.  This investment included a $10.5M construction loan from BBVA Compass Bank and a $5.5M equity investment from Wells Fargo Bank.  Donors of the El Rio Health Center Foundation contributed $865,000 toward the new building and radiology equipment. This 49,000 sq. ft. energy-efficient building serves all ages and provides medical, dental, behavioral health, psychiatry, laboratory services, mammography, ultrasound, x-ray, pharmacy, wellness classes, and patient insurance assistance. This is also a Teaching Health Center for El Rio housing medical students, pharmacy residents, family medicine residents, nurse practitioner residents, and dental residents.

Also, underway is the expansion of the El Rio Southeast Health Center at the southeast corner of Kolb Rd and Golf Links Road.  Our Southeast Health Center opened nearly 11 years ago and quickly grew with families and older adults.  This health center will grow from 14,000 sq. ft. to nearly 40,000 sq. ft. by late fall adding dental care, behavioral health, nurse midwifery, and OB/GYN services as well as expanding pediatric and family medicine services. This expansion was partially supported by a Health Resources and Services Administration(HRSA) grant of $1 million.  This expansion will allow us to grow the current patient population from approximately 8000 patients to nearly 11,000 in the coming years.

Lastly, in late Fall, we will welcome the second “HealthOn” health center with the opening of HealthOn University at the Trinity Project adjacent to Time Market  HealthOn University will join HealthOn Broadway as our two neighborhood health centers in partnership with Tucson Medical Center.

Why is El Rio growing so rapidly in the last five years?  When we ask our physicians, nurses, and employees about our growth, they point to the needs of our community.  Some identify the ability to secure a same-day appointment when needed, the expanded hours from 7 am to 8 pm and Saturdays allowing community members to avoid the unnecessary expense of urgent care or emergency rooms which make El Rio Health popular. Other employees identify the ease of having medical, dental, behavioral health, laboratory, x-ray, and other services all under one roof as being the draw! And then our nurses and physicians will cite the continuity of care, the convenience of an integrated record for all your health history, treatment and medications which provides a safer patient experience and the 24/7 RN nurse triage.

As El Rio Health approaches its 50th anniversary, we all honor the great work of community visionaries over the years in recognizing what great health care should look like for our community! As a team of healthcare professionals, we’re honored to be part of the national health center movement and invite you to visit El Rio Health!  www.elrio.org


Nancy Johnson, RN, MSN, MS, PhD

Nancy Johnson is the Chief Executive Officer for El Rio Community Health Center, one of the largest federally qualified health centers in the country.  She is a registered nurse graduating with a BSN from Illinois Wesleyan University.  Dr. Johnson also holds masters degrees in both nursing from the University of Illinois and a masters in marketing and business from the University of Arizona Eller College.  Her doctoral research was on provider perspectives in caring for the uninsured population, leading to her completion of her Ph.D. in Health Services.

Nancy has held positions as a clinician, a faculty member in nursing, business, and medicine, as well as an administrator. She spent over 15 years with Tucson Medical Center, building community health and wellness programs, acquiring and managing medical practices for the TMC system, and expanding community networks.  Today, in addition to her role as El Rio’s CEO, she continues to serve as an adjunct clinical professor for the University of Arizona College of Medicine.  She has authored a textbook with her husband, entitled “The Care of the Uninsured in America” and most recently, an article in Nursing Administration Quarterly on Healthcare for the Homeless.  Dr. Johnson is a recent recipient of the University of Arizona’s Cecil B. Hart Humanitarian Award as well as the 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award from Illinois Wesleyan University.

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