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Editorial: Proposed Amherst health clinic has merit

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A bit of controversy swirls around a proposal to place a health clinic to serve low-income people in the basement of the Bangs Community Center in downtown Amherst.

The building also houses the town’s senior center on the second floor and a group of about 10 people attended a recent Council on Aging meeting to object to the plan. Backed by the council’s chairman, Daniel Clapp, and senior center director Nancy Pagano, they argued that frail elderly people might be intimidated by the patients the center would draw and possibly sickened by germs they would bring with them. While its members didn’t vote, Pagano said a straw poll indicated the council agrees.

Later, Pagano clarified her stand, saying Council on Aging members and the senior center staff support the overall effort, saying it “dovetails” with its own health care programs. But Pagano also said she hopes the new clinic, if it is pursued, is sensitive “to its impact on the safety, health and well-being of our fast-growing vulnerable population of elderly senior center participants.”

Another group of town residents, led by senior citizen Alan Root, presented a petition to the town’s Select Board Monday saying they support the clinic and noted that Fannie Ward Bangs, who left money used to build the community center, wanted the funds to be used to construct a hospital. It took action by the probate court in 1974 to allow the $155,000 to be spent on a $1 million multi-purpose building instead. Further, they point out, the clinic would be located in the basement of the Bangs Center and accessible through its own doors.

We think those who expressed initial concerns about the proposed medical center — after being asked for their views — may have been too cautious. Worries about germs being spread by sick patients showing up seem to us to be unfounded. The senior center itself invites ill people in to visit a nurse who provides care each week in one of the center’s rooms and no one has complained about that.

The clinic, run as a satellite of the Hilltown Community Health Center in Huntington, would provide access to health care to needy people of all ages, including senior citizens who live in the nearby housing complexes for the elderly. Some of those older people live in apartments within walking distance of the Bangs Center and would benefit from having medical services close by. By adding the clinic to the Bangs Center, the town would be edging closer to its benefactor’s wishes.

Since it opened in 1978, the Bangs Center has hosted a range of groups in addition to the senior center, including the town Leisure Services and Supplemental Education and health departments, the Big Brothers Big Sisters program run by the Center for Human Development and the Center for New Americans, which offers resources for immigrants and refugees. Leaders of the senior center, which provides elderly residents with a slew of health and recreational programs, may want — and need — a new space all their own, but that is a separate issue.

Pagano has said the Bangs Center has become a magnet for people seeking warmth during cold winter days. Some people have created messes in rest rooms, she said, and have made the senior center less welcoming to some elderly people. If people are loitering and misbehaving, steps should be taken to address those problems. But speculating that another group will present similar issues because it consists of people with low incomes is wrong.

Town Manager John Musante supports placing the clinic in the Bangs Center. He proposes moving the Leisure Services and Supplemental Education offices into the vacant East Street School building. Studies have indicated that 8,000 people in the Amherst area are classified as “poor” and could benefit from the new clinic. Advocates hope it would draw 700 new patients the first year.

It was heartening to see — by the quick response of Root and his fellow petitioners — that there is support for the clinic. We hope those affiliated with the senior center will consider its value.

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