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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Cempa Community Care is photographed Tuesday, July 30, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Cempa Community Care is now designated as a community health center by the federal government, enabling the nonprofit to expand its income-based primary care services to cover anyone — not just patients with infectious diseases.

"There's a huge need for those who are uninsured or underinsured to get health care, and now this will give them more access," said Cory Howard, chief operating officer at Cempa. Howard said part of the inspiration to work toward the new designation — known as a federally qualified health center look-alike — was seeing the need of Cempa's current patients' partners and family members.

Cempa Community Care began as an organization combating HIV/AIDS in Chattanooga in the 1980s under the name Chattanooga CARES. However, CEO Shannon Stephenson said the organization has evolved based on changing needs in the community.

"We have done a great job addressing some of the disparities related to the HIV populations, so we knew that we were equipped to take on other disparities," Stephenson said, adding that only 11% of the area's low-income population is currently being served by health centers.

"We are not looking to take patients away from another practice. We're looking to serve those patients who have not been served and who are not being served," she said.

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Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / Shannon Stephenson, the chief executive officer for Cempa Community Care, poses for a photo in her office at Cempa on Tuesday, July 30, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Anyone living below 200% of the federal poverty level who visits Cempa will now be able to access primary care using a sliding fee scale. That means people who need to pay for their health care out of pocket will pay based on their income level and household size. A single person making about $25,000 per year would pay $40 per medical visit, whereas a family of four making the same amount would pay $25 per visit.

To keep up with its growing number of patients, Cempa has hired a new physician who is board-certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases, two new nurse practitioners and is working to hire an additional caseworker.

"We've expanded our mission even further," Stephenson said. "Our biggest hope and wish is for health equity in our community, and we feel like we can bring so much now to make that happen."

Cempa has focused heavily on fostering a culture of trust among minority and underserved communities. As a result, the organization received the Times Free Press' 2019 Champions of Health Care Community Outreach Award.

Cempa is now the only federally qualified health center look-alike in the area. Unlike a normal FQHC, look-alikes do not receive federal grant funding. Other federally qualified health centers include Dodson Avenue Community Health Center, Southside Community Health Center in St. Elmo, Cherokee Health Systems in Brainerd and the Homeless Health Care Center.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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