‘People Are Still Hurting’: Del Valle’s Scarce Access to Health Care Services

By Krystal Cruz | Tuesday, November 9th 2021

Living out in Creedmoor for almost 22 years, Joyce Fisher isn’t a stranger to long commutes for necessities. The usual hour-long drive to see her health care specialists is part of her routine, but that doesn’t stop her from loathing the extra steps she must take to manage her chronic conditions.

“Why do I have to keep constantly driving long [distances] to see [a] specialist to get the care that I need to have,” Fisher says. “Why is our neck of the woods always ignored?”

Like many residents in the Southeast Travis County area, which includes Del Valle and parts of Creedmoor and Mustang Ridge depending on how you define it, Fisher must make special efforts to get health care services. There are only three health clinics in the area available to the population of over 30,000.

“Just because we live in a rural disadvantaged area does not mean that we don't also have the same health issues,” Fisher says. “People are still hurting.”

The chances of receiving care at these health clinics shrink as they cater to a specific patient type.The Travis County Employee Health Clinic only provides health care for Travis County Employees, the UT Children’s Wellness Center is for patients 0 to 18 years old and the CommUnityCare Del Valle Health Center prioritizes uninsured patients.

Fisher is one of many unqualified residents who fall through the cracks.

“We’re kind of in that odd spot that we’re not low income but we’re also not really middle income people as well,” Fisher says. “We feel like we’re getting ignored.”

If a patient does qualify to receive care at one of these clinics, it can often take a few months to secure an appointment. Not only is the registration process long, but there's no guarantee the clinic will be able to provide the type of care the patient needs. Residents who are managing chronic health conditions or need emergency medical services have to drive at least 20 minutes to the nearest hospital for care.

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Building 3518-A hosts both the Travis County Employee Health Clinic and CommUnityCare.The CommUnityCare Clinic limits their potential patients by primarily focusing on treating uninsured residents. Sometimes the closest new patient appointment slot requires booking months in advance.

“The majority of our hospitals are west, if not all of them. And if you have to drive 20 miles to see a doctor, it can definitely make it a lot harder to get those preventative checkups and exams to make sure that you're healthy.” says Stephanie Helfman, program manager at Austin Public Health.

Many Del Valle residents don’t have a car to get them to a doctor’s appointment miles away. With only one bus line that runs through town, residents don’t have many options for reliable transportation. Lawrence Ramirez lives in Del Valle and is a bus operator for Cap Metro’s Metro Access service, which provides on-demand shared ride services for people with disabilities.

“Some people have to travel pretty far. It's very bad out here. There's really nowhere easy where people can get access to a clinic,” Ramirez says.

While MetroAccess does provide transportation for people in the area, the service is limited. It is only available if you live by the fixed bus route and same day appointments are rare.

“Just for them to set up an appointment with paratransit, they have to do that a day ahead," Ramirez says. “They already have issues, so they don't know how they're going to wake up the next day [or] if they're going to even be able to get out of the bed.”

This lack of health care resources has caused severe health disparities in the community. According to an Austin Public Health report in 2017, Del Valle residents have a much lower life expectancy compared to other parts of Travis County.

“People who are living in zip codes in West Austin are living as much as 20 years longer than people who live in some of the zip codes east of I-35, including Del Valle,” Helfman says.

Although several factors contribute to the health disparities in the community, Helfman says zip codes in that particular area tend to have higher rates of poverty.

“Because of that, it can be harder to afford healthy food or medical care and harder to manage a chronic disease with that limited access” Helfman says.

Hoping to fill some of the health care gaps in Del Valle, Central Health Enterprise submitted plans in June 2021 for a new facility. The proposed Central Health clinic would absorb the current facility and services of the CommUnityCare Del Valle Health Center. Although the proposed facility, like CommUnityCare, will prioritize the uninsured, it also plans to accept insured patients. According to the project’s webpage, the new center would provide primary, dental and integrated mental health care services.

“The services provided [are] based on data [and] also based on what the community says they need,” says Ted Burton, Central Health vice president of communications.

However promising the facility’s plans look, it is not anticipated to open until Spring of 2023. Central Health must meet several project milestones in the coming months before groundbreaking and establishing programs to help the community.

“As a government entity, there's a process that we have to follow. Whether it's acquiring the land, to developing site plans [or] getting permits.” Burton says.

In the meantime, long-time residents like Ramirez are growing inpatient.

“How much longer do we need to wait out here,” Ramirez says. “I’ve been out here for 14 years and nothing has changed.”

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