Community Health Center's cutting-edge care model reaches beyond CT

BY Christopher Hoffman
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

Community Health Center founder Mark Masselli has helped build the not-for-profit into an organization that now services 100,000 patients annually. Other CHC employees and caregivers are also pictured.
Category: Corporate Achievement — Innovation

Community Health Center Inc.

Address: 675 Main St., Middletown

Top Executive: Mark Masselli, Founder

Mark Masselli knew something had to be done. Working at a crisis intervention center in Middletown in the early 1970s, he kept seeing individuals and families whose only access to health care was the emergency room.

So Masselli and a group of like-minded activists banded together to open a free clinic offering dental care in a second-floor walkup center on College Street. He remembers the place as having a distinct late-1960s-early-1970s vibe, with beaded curtains separating the rooms.

"You could have been in San Francisco," he quipped.

Forty-five years later, Community Health Center Inc., the health center Masselli and his fellow activists created, provides medical as well as dental services to 100,000 people a year at 14 primary and 200 secondary locations scattered throughout the state.

The not-for-profit has expanded far beyond Connecticut's borders, helping create cutting-edge programs from Rhode Island to Hawaii through its research institute. Long gone is the second-floor walkup, replaced by a 50,000-square-foot building on Main Street in Middletown's north end.

Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce President Larry McHugh praised Community Health Center and Masselli for their "unbelievable leadership." In addition to the plethora of services it provides the community and the state, the organization's headquarters has transformed Middletown's traditionally neglected north end, he said.

"We're very proud of them," McHugh said. "We're happy they've grown in Middletown and more happy they've made the commitment to stay in Middletown. Mark Masselli has never forgotten his roots."

Those roots run deep. Masselli grew up in Middletown, the son of a Wesleyan University chemistry professor, and graduated in 1969 from the city's Xavier High School. Caught up in the spirit of the 1960s, he began working for an anti-poverty organization at 19. It was then that his lifelong commitment to providing the disadvantaged with health care germinated.

"The healthcare system has ignored people of color, the poor, immigrants, women, and can't we do something better?" Masselli said.

At first, the area's medical establishment resisted the fledgling clinic, Masselli recalled. While it was able to recruit a local dentist to donate care, not one of the city's doctors would do so. Local physicians even tried unsuccessfully to shut down the clinic, filing a complaint with the state that its doors weren't wide enough, he recalled.

The clinic eventually found a physician from New York City willing to provide free care, Masselli said. Over time, the center was able to begin hiring doctors, and its reputation blossomed, attracting several former chief pediatric residents at the Yale Medical School of Medicine, he said. Today, Community Health employs about 1,000 people statewide, Masselli said.

Community Health's budget has grown to $100 million a year, but only about 15 percent comes from federal and state grants, Masselli said. The group didn't begin accepting direct government assistance until the early 1990s, he said.

The group has used entrepreneurship to help itself grow. About 15 years ago, Community Health's leaders decided to create an outside organization to foster research and innovation, forming the Weitzman Institute, Masselli said.

The Institute has expanded Community Health's reach nationwide through pioneering programs such as the Community eConsult Network, which eases access to specialized care for poorer patients — a major problem in community health care.

The service allows primary care providers to send patient information electronically to specialists for prompt consultations, to determine if a patient office visit is necessary, Masselli said.

The service has proven to reduce the number of patient office visits by resolving issues through an e-consult, saving patients money.

The Community eConsult Network has been expanded to 24 specialties, Masselli said. The organization has fostered the model nationwide, helping create 50 similar programs in other states, with another 50 in the pipeline, Masselli said.

Other innovations coming out of the Institute and organization include a residency program for medical assistants and videos that educate medical professionals in management of chronic diseases like diabetes. Both ideas have caught on elsewhere, and Community Health now has contracts with similar organizations in 26 states, Masselli said.

Community Health, Masselli said, has never lost touch with its founding principal of serving the less fortunate, a commitment reflected in the makeup of its governing board, he said. Patients occupy half the seats, he said.

"We view them as our leaders and mentors," Masselli said.