A look back at our journey from job training to healthcare services

by Renée Louzon-Benn

February 2016 marked the 40th anniversary for Sun Life Family Health Center (Sun Life). Since 1976, Sun Life has delivered health care to the underserved, uninsured and insured people living in rural Pinal County. The nonprofit organization has grown to become the county’s largest primary health care provider, committed to providing both the insured and uninsured with access to quality and price-conscious services.

Sun Life’s Historical Journey

Sun Life staff truly care about the people we serve. It has been our legacy since Sun Life started. We began as an outgrowth of the Arizona Job College, which provided job training for migrant and seasonal farm workers. The farm workers who were interested in health services were trained at the center. Over time, as the training funds ran out, the health funds kept coming and the job college became solely a health facility.

In 1976, the Center became incorporated as West Pinal Family Health Center (West Pinal), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit which staffed one full-time and one part-time physician. In the first year, the center provided 12,000 patient visits. March 1977, the center moved from the Job College to the Esperanza Building at 201. W. Cottonwood Lane. This move provided a larger facility, allowing the center to increase staffing to three full-time and three part-time physicians. This new facility was built to offer laboratory, X-ray and pharmacy services as a convenience for patients. By 1978, the center had introduced family dentistry and women’s health and maternity care services (OB/GYN) and could now provide an array of services to the community, truly becoming a “family health center.”

1980 saw the start of growth to communities outside of Casa Grande, starting with the center’s second office in Maricopa, and in 1981 becoming established as a Federally Qualified Health Center, allowing a shift in funding from migrant grants to the Community Health Center Program grant. The center operated on a sliding-fee schedule; patients paid according to their income. This was by no means a free clinic, as there was a minimum fee charged. This meant West Pinal was able to ensure that everyone in the community was eligible to use the center’s services, regardless of income or insurance status. Even in these early years, the goal was to offer good, quality, conventional care, focusing on preventative health services. This level of care supported continued growth, and in 1983, we opened in Eloy, and 1984, opened in Coolidge, bringing the organization to four offices in the county.

In 1996, West Pinal underwent some big changes and rebranded itself, thus changing its name to Sun Life Family Health Center. Along with its new name, the organization also moved into a newly constructed building on Arizola Road in order to serve the growing insured and uninsured Casa Grande population. The facility expanded in 2003 and still stands today as the organization’s largest family health center location, and includes dental services and a pharmacy.

A mine closure presented Sun Life with an opportunity to fill more needs in the community, and in 1999, we opened an office in San Manuel, operating out of this small town’s newly vacated hospital. This office houses a family practice, lab, X-ray and a pharmacy. As the years went by, Sun Life continued to try to provide patients and communities the best possible patient experience and to be where there is a need for accessible and price conscious health care. 2001 saw new construction for the Maricopa office and the Coolidge office in 2003. In 2004, Sun Life opened an office in the Oracle community.

Sun Life experienced amazing growth over the past 10 years of operation. In 2010, Sun Life added integrated behavioral health services into the existing health care model. 2010 also marked the move of OB/GYN into its own building alongside the newly added pediatric services. 2010 also marked the completion of a new building for Eloy, which houses a family practice and a pharmacy, a service the town had been without for over 14 years. Increased patient need spurred more growth in 2014, resulting with Casa Grande’s Sun Life Center for Children, Sun Life Center for Women, and a new Apache Junction office offering family practice, pediatrics, OB/GYN and a pharmacy. In 2015, Sun Life moved Maricopa’s family practice to a new, larger facility, added pediatric care and a pharmacy and renovated the original Maricopa office to provide OB/GYN. In 2016, Sun Life marked its 40th year by opening a new family practice office in Florence and a pediatric dental office in Casa Grande.

From its humble beginnings, Sun Life has grown from a small office with one full-time and one part-time physician to staffing 61 health care providers at 12 offices in eight Pinal County communities. Over the 40 years of Sun Life’s journey, the board of directors and leadership have set goals to provide the highest level of quality care to our patients, and to provide excellence in health, wellness and education.

In addition to meeting community health needs with comprehensive medical services in Pinal County, Sun Life is also dedicated to training the next generation of health care workers by acting as a clinical education resource. Sun Life provides opportunities for students with majors related to health care careers, to serve in interdisciplinary primary health care teams at area community health centers. Sun Life was the first medical practice in Pinal County to participate in the nationally acclaimed Reach Out and Read program, where doctors give babies and toddlers free books at well-child visits to encourage readership and literacy.

Although the organization has been culturally branded as a nonprofit entity that relies on federal grant funds to operate, Sun Life’s Health Center Program grant monies make up only about 7 percent of its annual revenues. The rest of the organization’s revenue is earned by serving all area populations from the insured to self-paying patients.

Quality health care are not only words in the organization’s mission statement, but a real everyday effort throughout the organization. Sun Life is accredited by the Joint Commission, which is completely voluntary. Being accredited by the Joint Commission means that Sun Life adheres to the commission’s mission, which is “to continuously improve the safety and quality of care provided to the public.”

“Quality care,” Sun Life’s CEO Travis Robinette said, “is the right thing to do for our patients and staff.” “I believe that to be a leader in anything, it is not a state of being or a plateau you reach; it’s a constant, never-ending effort. We don’t just sit back and rest on our laurels. At Sun Life, we will always continue to strive and raise the bar in delivering quality health care and achieving excellence.”