Special Reports

Tallevast residents wary of free health program

TALLEVAST - Despite heavy promotion, few Tallevast residents have opted for free medical care offered through a trust fund set up by Lockheed Martin Corp. six months ago, according to doctors running the program.

"We sent 10 letters to each resident - that's 10 letters each to 300 people, or 3,000 letters, but response is low," said Dr. Steven Morris III, medical director.

Morris, a specialist in occupational and environmental health, wants the community to know the free medical care is offered independent of Lockheed.

"Our only job is to evaluate and assist current and former residents in their health care," said Morris, who did not release participation figures for confidentiality reasons.

While Tallevast leaders say they have confidence in Morris, they don't trust Lockheed, which is responsible for cleaning up a 200-acre plume of contaminated groundwater that leaked from a beryllium plant the defense giant once owned.

"I can't accept Lockheed saying, 'Come over here and trust us,' " said Wanda Washington, vice president of FOCUS, a community advocacy group. "I don't much trust anything Lockheed tells me."

Washington and more than 300 current and former residents have filed lawsuits against Lockheed, claiming property damage and distress caused by the toxic waste.

Many residents are wary of a free medical program financed by the very company they are suing, Washington said.

Lockheed established the Tallevast Community Trust Fund with a $500,000 gift, said Gail Rymer, company spokeswoman. The free medical program has no end date, and Lockheed will likely make more contributions in the future, Rymer said.

The program includes an initial physical examination, followed by treatment plans for ailments discovered on a case-by-case basis.

But before they accept free medical care, many residents want to know the details of that trust, Washington said.

"We still don't quite understand what they are offering us or what strings are attached," Washington said.

There are no strings, Rymer said.

"Our only goal is help residents," she said. "There is no other goal."

Morris said the trust issue goes both ways.

"Some residents who are participating are concerned that if word gets out, they will be singled out by FOCUS," said Morris.

Washington was astounded by Morris' statement.

"It is not in my place to tell people what to do," she said. "We are not asking people to not participate, but at the same time we are not encouraging people to participate. The only thing I am saying to people is, 'You need to know what you are walking into before you go.' "

In fact, many aspects of the free medical care program appeal to Washington, who was impressed with Morris and Dr. Wayne Jones, another doctor on the project, when they met with the advocacy group last summer.

"We like Dr. Morris. We welcomed him," she said. "Our meetings were very cordial and productive. All we needed to know was the workings of the trust. But when we started asking those questions, he suddenly backed off."

Morris, too, called the meetings with FOCUS fruitful before the discussion turned to legal matters.

"I didn't back off," he said. "I told them I was not the information source for the trust or Lockheed. I told them to contact Gail Rymer for that information.

"I know there is litigation, but I am not a litigant or lawyer," he said. "I am a doctor. My main purpose is to provide medical evaluations."

Lockheed has had no input into how the program is designed, Morris said.

"We do not work for Lockheed and we don't work for FOCUS," he said. "Our only concern here is to answer residents' questions about their health. Whether those questions are related to exposure is not the primary concern during the initial exam. If there is found to be a connection, then we will evaluate that."

Initial exams are being provided locally through US Health Care at 1105 53rd Ave. E. Treatment options are offered on a case-by-case basis.

Helping Tallevast is a personal mission for Morris and Jones, both black doctors committed to improving health care for African-American communities.

"This is a dynamic program," said Jones. "In every community you can find people with chronic diseases that are not being treated. We are here to help them."

Rymer says she hopes the community sees this program for what it is - "an opportunity for free health care with no strings attached."

Donna Wright, health and social services reporter, can be reached at 745-7049 or at dwright@Bradenton.com.

Archived stories and documents on Tallevast on our Web site.

Tallevast Community Health Trust Fund

Financed by: $500,000 grant from Lockheed Martin Corp.

Medical director: Dr. Steven Morris III, University of South Florida, specialist in environmental and occupational health.

Medical evaluations: Provided by US Health Works, 1105 53rd Ave. E. Follow-up care and treatment on a case-by-case basis provided by local participating specialists.

Services offered:

 Counseling

 Health evaluation

 Physical examination

 Laboratory analysis

 Pharmacy assistance

 Cardiology evaluation

 Pulmonary evaluation

 Eye exams

 Women's health exam

 Men's health exam

Information: Tallevasthealth@aol.com, (941) 735-3168

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