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As an undocumented immigrant without health insurance, Justina Tellez-Perez faces daunting obstacles to get treatment for her daughter’s thyroid condition. But thanks to a Penn-based program called Puentes de Salud, she has obtained expert attention for a minimal cost since arriving in the United States six years ago.

Since 2003, Puentes de Salud has provided low-cost primary healthcare plus a range of social and educational services to thousands of uninsured immigrants, many of them Latino. Relying on an army of volunteer doctors, nurses, medical students, and interpreters—augmented by just a handful of paid employees—the nonprofit has borrowed various medical premises to run part-time clinics for this vulnerable population.

Its services, which range from dentistry and prenatal care to English-language tutoring and art therapy, have been offered at different locations around Philadelphia. But this spring Puentes will begin a new chapter in a dedicated home of its own.

The 7,000-square-foot Puentes de Salud Health and Wellness Center, housed in a former Penn Medicine IT center at 17th and South streets in Center City, will offer patients like Tellez-Perez easier access to the organization’s holistic approach.

Under one roof, Puentes will be able to provide primary healthcare as well as more specialized treatment including ophthalmology, counseling on behavioral-health issues (such as substance abuse), family planning, and legal services. The goal is to treat not only the symptoms but also the underlying causes of the health challenges faced by Philadelphia’s immigrant community, at a cost to patients that’s minimal by the standards of the medical system as a whole.

The center will supply, for example, the medicine that Tellez-Perez uses to control her daughter’s thyroid condition, at a cost of just $20 a month. It will also operate a primary-care clinic that charges as little as $10 per visit.

Without Puentes’ services, it would have been “very difficult” to navigate the American system since arriving from her native Mexico, said Tellez-Perez through an interpreter.

The 30-year-old mother of two, who works in an ice cream factory, now attends the program’s weekly English classes, for which there is no charge, and gets free interpretation services to help her read English-language letters that arrive at the South Philadelphia home where she lives with her husband Apolinar, a restaurant worker.

Both their daughters attend a free after-school program run by Puentes’ volunteers, many of them college students, at Southwark School in South Philadelphia. When the new center opens, Puentes—whose full name means “Bridges of Health”—will continue to offer its services at the school because of its convenience to the local Latino community, but current clients will also have access to the new South Street facility.

The organization has come a long way since being set up by Steve Larson M’88, a professor of emergency medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine, and Jack Ludmir C’77 GM’87, chairman of Penn Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, in response to a lack of prenatal and general medical care among Philadelphia’s Latino immigrants.

“My total frustration was that these women, because they were unauthorized, could not get prenatal care,” Ludmir recalls. Their lack of preventive care, he felt, led to costly problems that might otherwise have been avoided.

From the beginning, the organization has benefited from the willingness of many branches of Penn faculty to provide services, Larson said. Contributors include the Graduate School of Education, which has designed a curriculum in English as a Second Language and a summer reading program; Penn Nursing, which supplies volunteers; and Wharton, which has offered investment classes.

The new facility augments Puentes’ holistic mission with an education space that will provide classes including yoga, meditation, and a Head Start program. In a new kitchen, clients will be able to take healthy-eating classes given by a chef from Tequilas, a downtown restaurant that employs many Latino immigrants.

The center will be open five days and two evenings a week—a significant increase from the two evenings a week that Puentes operates in its current borrowed premises.

While Penn is leasing the new space for $1 a year, the renovation cost $1.2 million, around half of which came from donations. The remainder came from in-kind help, ranging from sheetrock and contractors’ time to furniture and computers donated by Penn.

With a projected 10,000 patient visits annually, Larson expects the center to generate income of between $150,000 and $200,000, which will support the hiring of a nurse, a laboratory technician, and an office manager, in addition to the full-time nurse and three part-time staff who are currently the only paid employees.

Though Puentes caters mostly to the undocumented Latino community, it is open to all ethnic groups, and will treat US citizens who are having trouble navigating the mainstream health system.

“We see anyone,” Larson says, noting that his patients include Liberians, Moroccans, and Pakistanis.

In an interview, Larson brushed off any concerns that the new center might be seen as formalizing assistance given to illegal immigrants. He likened the Puentes mission to that of faith-based organizations driven by a sense of responsibility to care for people without a voice, even if they lack the necessary papers to remain in the country.

“I’m a healthcare provider,” he says. “I signed an oath that didn’t have anything to do with geographic boundaries.”

—Jon Hurdle

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