It takes patients at the city's health centers an average of more than five months to get an appointment to see a doctor, according to a report released yesterday by the city controller.
In comparison, it took 15 days to get an appointment in New York City and only seven days in Baltimore, according to the report.
"Studies show that prevention is oftentimes the best medicine," City Controller Alan Butkovitz said in releasing the report. "In the case of our health clinics, prevention is on the back burner."
Tom Storey, director of ambulatory services for the city's Department of Public Health, attributes the long average wait time to delays at the Cottman Avenue center in the Northeast.
"Health Center 10 is certainly our greatest challenge," Storey said. "We believe it reflects the few choices that people have. There are not other community centers available. There are not a lot of hospitals in that area. In our opinion, it really does reflect a demand for service."
There are eight public health-care centers throughout the city, and, according to Health Department data, most of the 85,000 patients who visited them last year were African American and Hispanic adults mired in poverty.
About half of their 320,000 visits were uninsured.
Sitting outside the city health center at Broad and Morris Streets yesterday, Dawn Price, waiting for her ride, was fuming.
For more than a week, she had been wincing from stomach pain, and she had gone to the center yesterday only to be told to come back Friday.
The doctor wasn't in.
"I'm mad," said Price, who said she had endured long waits at the center in the past.
Price recently started a job and does not yet have health insurance for herself or her 11-year-old daughter.
"It's stressful. It's hurtful," she said. "Because you don't have insurance, you don't get any respect."
The controller's report also found that pharmacists in the city's clinics were filling more than 300 prescriptions a day, sometimes with as little as 75 seconds for each.
"Common sense would tell you that the higher the number of prescriptions filled under this extremely tight time frame, the greater the risk for mistakes and harm to patients," Butkovitz said.
According to the report, there is no control system to track the inventory of drugs, hours are limited for patients to pick up prescriptions, and the system to verify insurance is poor at best.
The Controller's Office made a number of recommendations to the Health Department, including immediately hiring more pharmacists, making prescription drug counseling a requirement unless the patient signs a waiver, and checking insurance during the patient intake process.
Storey said that he was happy to focus on the recommendations, and that with $3 million added to the department's budget in fiscal year 2009 by Mayor Nutter, his goal was to bring the appointment wait time down to 30 days through additional staffing, including pharmacists.
"We care deeply about the quality of care in the health centers," Storey said. "The report suggests that we are in some way deficient. But I honestly believe the health centers in this city are quite remarkable."