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'A lot of the challenges are the same;' VNA reflects on 100 years as public health provider
The Beacon-News - 12/5/2018
Dec. 05--The world is a lot different than it was Dec. 5, 1918, when Fannie Hopkins Peffers put pen to paper to take the minutes of an Aurora Child Welfare Clinic Association meeting.
But the mission of that group -- today known as VNA Health Care with its minutes taken on a laptop computer -- has changed very little.
"The purpose is the same, really," says Linnea Windel, who has been president and chief executive officer for VNA Health Care for 19 years. "This idea 100 years ago of serving everyone is the consistent thread."
VNA officials and friends are celebrating the organization's 100th birthday Wednesday with a Founders Tea. And they have been celebrating throughout 2018 with a gala and other events.
But the real celebration is that what started in Aurora with one nurse as the first real public health initiative in the area has grown to an organization with 70 full-time doctors and nurse practitioners at 14 clinics in seven locations throughout the west and southwest suburbs.
There are three clinics in Aurora now -- at the main office at 400 N. Highland Ave., at 1400 Indian Ave., and in East Aurora High School. There are two in both Elgin and Carol Stream, and clinics in Bensenville, Bolingbrook, Romeoville and Joliet.
In total, they serve 75,000 patients, both in the clinics and still through home visits.
"We extend care to all, whether or not if they have insurance or the ability to pay," Windel says. "We don't turn anybody down."
Most people think of the VNA as the Visiting Nurse Association, but it actually was not called that until 1953. In 1988 it became the Visiting Nurse Association of Fox Valley, and VNA Health Care in 2011.
In 1918, the first caregiver was Alice Sparks, who had been a nurse during World War I taking care of veterans who had been exposed to gas attacks. One of the first major challenges for the new Aurora Child Welfare Clinic Association was immunizing against diphtheria.
The initial focus was on treating children, but Windel notes that "in short order, we started seeing adults, too."
So in 1919, the organization renamed itself the Public Health Association and hired its second full-time caregiver, known as Nurse Zilly, specifically to give more immunizations.
In addition to fighting diphtheria, the organization worked to treat polio and tuberculosis.
VNAs first started popping up in New York City in 1900. Often, they functioned as public health departments because those did not exist at the time.
The VNA in Kane County provided health department functions in both its Aurora and Elgin locations until the Kane County Health Department was formed in 1985. Even then, the Health Department for a while contracted with the VNA for some of its services.
During the 1960s, the VNA grew with the advent of Medicare, helping non-profits provide primary care for the poor. It also received a boost from a large monetary donation by the estate of C.B. Phillips.
Things changed dramatically in 2002, Windel says, when the VNA became a Federally Qualified Health Center. In going through what she calls "a rigorous process" to get that designation, it gave the VNA funding to subsidize health care for people with no insurance, provided the VNA with malpractice insurance and helped with a reimbursement for Medicaid patients.
"These three benefits make it possible for us to have stable funding," Windel says. "The advantages you get are nice, but your obligation is to the same people."
Other associations have helped the VNA grow through the years, such as contracting with Aetna Inc. to provide home visits to their clients and developing a similar relationship with Metropolitan Life.
As VNA Health Care gets set to start its second 100 years, Windel says it still is looking for better ways to serve its clients, always trying "to find enough nurses, doctors."
"A lot of the challenges are the same," she said.
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