New mobile clinics aim to tear down barriers to quality healthcare

Cleveland City Council authorized the city’s public health department to outfit two trucks as mobile clinics that will bring health care services to residents.


City Council’s Municipal Services and Properties Committee hears an ordinance to allow the purchase of mobile clinics during its meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, 2021.


Cleveland’s Department of Public Health is moving ahead with a plan to expand its direct healthcare services by purchasing mobile health clinics intended to make quality healthcare more accessible and reduce health disparities in Cleveland. 

Frances Mills. Photo via

The ordinance, which was passed by Cleveland City Council at its meeting last week, will allow the health department to purchase two vehicles outfitted as mobile clinics. They would bring a host of free health services directly to community hubs, neighborhoods and events across the city. 

The idea for the mobile clinics has come out of years-long conversations about how best to improve community health and prevent further proliferation of chronic diseases, which data shows are pervasive in Cleveland, said Frances Mills, the city’s Health Commissioner and director of the Office of Minority Health. Data also shows, she said, “skyrocketing” opioid use over the last year and increasing mental health issues. 

“This gives us a greater opportunity to sit down and talk with individuals about, let’s connect you with care, so that we don’t have these situations in which we see these skyrocketing blood sugars, skyrocketing blood pressures, that keep people sick,” Mills said. 

Hitting the streets 

The custom-built trucks could hit the streets in about 10 months. At $550,000 each, they come retrofitted with all the necessary equipment to administer child lead testing, general health screenings, and immunizations, along with services related to chronic disease management, reproductive health, mental health and substance abuse. 

Tracy Martin-Thompson, the city’s chief of prevention, intervention and opportunity for youth and young adults, said during city council’s municipal services and properties committee meeting that many Clevelanders lack easy access to the clinical services they need, according to a 2019 Community Health Assessment by HIP Cuyahoga. 

The city also participated in an Access to Care study that same year that analyzed social and environmental factors affecting access to healthcare, outlined disparities, and identified strategies for more equitable healthcare. 

Loren Anthes. Photo via

Mills said the Community Health Assessment outlined five key areas that the city and other local healthcare providers agreed to focus on: addressing structural racism, building community trust, improving impoverished conditions in Cleveland neighborhoods, treating chronic diseases and caring for behavioral health.  

Through addressing those social and environmental factors, public health departments can play a role in helping reduce health disparities, said Loren Anthes, the chair in health planning and leader of the Center for Medicaid Policy at the Center For Community Solutions. 

“The best health policy doesn’t happen inside the four walls of a clinic,” Anthes said, noting that public health is chronically underfunded. “We know that 80 percent of health outcomes are tied to interventions that are not medical at all. They are social and they’re economic and they’re environmental. That’s where public health departments should play a role.”

Expanding access to care 

The mobile clinics will expand the role of the city’s Department of Public Health, which currently operates two existing clinics. The 2019 Access to Care study found, among other things, that the bevy of healthcare resources available in Cleveland were underutilized. It highlighted a need for creative solutions to better engage the public and keep people informed about the healthcare resources available to them.

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In addition to direct health services, Martin-Thompson said the mobile clinics will help patients sign up for Medicaid or other insurance options and connect them with other doctors if needed.   

When city council passed the ordinance at last Monday’s meeting, Ward 3 Council Member Kerry McCormack, who heads council’s health and human services committee, hailed the new initiative. “These two mobile units will bring health directly to our community, to our residents, to ensure that folks have access to high-quality healthcare no matter where they are,” he said. 

Yet Ward 1 Council Member Joe Jones voiced concern that the proposal’s proponents from Jackson’s administration were asking council members to vote on the new initiative without sufficient research and information about the project’s estimated costs and benefits. 

If they didn’t vote to approve the project last week, the city’s Director of Public Works Michael Cox said it would be delayed by “three, four or five months.” Jones said he didn’t believe that.

“We’re being pushed at the limit here to make a decision on purchasing a million dollars worth of equipment,” Jones said. “We’re right at the end of the year, and we’re going into a new administration. I don’t think that this is a prudent approach to manage the affairs of the city of Cleveland.”

City council passed the proposal for the purchase of the vehicles as an amendment to an ordinance passed in August which originally allocated $8.2 million for the director of public works to spend on various vehicles. The amendment adds an additional $1.1 million dollars, the cost of the two vehicles, to that allocated budget. 

Council Member Kevin Bishop, who heads the municipal services committee, sponsored the amendment along with Council President Kevin Kelley. It was initiated through a departmental request, meaning that a city department asked council for the amendment, and first read at the Nov. 22 council meeting. Additionally, it was passed as an emergency ordinance, meaning it will take effect as soon as the mayor signs it or 10 days after the vote. Normal ordinances take effect 30 days after they’re passed. 

Serving a community need 

There may be good reasons for the rush. Cities across the country are formulating how to spend their American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and coming out of a pandemic, Loren Anthes said medical supplies and ambulance-style trucks are in high demand. 

“There’s certainly a pressure, I think, to try to replace the fleet, to get the best price possible, because the more you wait, the harder it is to do so,” Anthes said. “If I’m an ambulance maker, I’m pretty happy with the way the world is right now.”

Tracy Martin-Thompson. Photo via

Along with the equipment, the city will hire five staff members for each vehicle: a nurse practitioner, a registered nurse, a phlebotomist (a healthcare worker trained to draw blood), a worker tasked with registering patients, and a driver. Martin-Thompson estimated that staff would cost about $1 million each year. She said the city would seek out partnerships primarily with rec centers, but also with schools and libraries, to bring the mobile clinics directly to community hubs across Cleveland. 

While Jones said he supports the project’s ethos, he questioned how much it would cost to restock supplies. When he asked Martin-Thompson for an estimate of how many people the clinics would serve, she said she did not know. 

Yvonka Hall, the founder of the Northeast Ohio Black Health Coalition, remained supportive of the mobile clinics, saying their capacity to test for lead poisoning puts the city’s health care service “10 steps ahead of where we are now.” When city council first opened up public comment earlier this year, she spent her allotted time asking for mobile lead testing units and more robust testing services at the city’s existing health centers. 

Ideally, she said, the mobile clinics could serve both as a convenient lead testing site and a much-needed source of information about Cleveland’s lead safe policies and lead poisoning’s lasting impacts. 

“Other chronic issues actually go along with lead,” Hall said. “We see hypertension, we see a lot of other things that are directly tied to lead poisoning … You have to be able to make sure that you’re doing everything that you can to help extend the life and the quality of life for the people, the residents of our community.”

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Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land.

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