Care for All

United Way of Central Florida’s Community Wellness Initiative Helps Polk’s Uninsured and Underserved


One of the biggest struggles Americans face is the cost of healthcare, particularly for underserved populations. Here in Polk County, many of our residents face this very challenge, due to factors like low income, lack of access to health insurance, and more. And with inflation on the rise, things are harder than ever. 

One resource available to help these vulnerable Polk Residents is United Way of Central Florida’s Community Wellness Initiative, which works to inform residents about the Polk HealthCare Plan and other services and resources available through United Way. To learn more about these programs, Central Florida Health News sat down with Shirley Balogh, Director of Community Wellness at UWCF in Lakeland. 


“My job is to oversee the two legs of the program that we have contracted through Polk County,” Balogh explains. “One is contracting with local organizations to provide behavioral health prevention and intervention services to Polk County residents. The other is the navigation program where we have Navigators that go out throughout the entire Polk County area to educate people about the services that are offered through the Community Wellness Grant and United Way.”

The Community Wellness Initiative first got its start in 1999, when Polk County passed a referendum regarding indigent healthcare, in other words, healthcare for those unable to afford the full cost. Infrastructure was created to provide healthcare to underserved and uninsured residents of Polk County, and voters approved a half-cent sales tax to fund it in 2004. The program was rolled out in 2006, and the program partnered with UWCF to be able to continue growing in 2022. 

The core piece of the Community Wellness Initiative is the Polk HealthCare Plan, or PHP. Through partnerships with local medical providers, this program provides primary and specialty care,  behavioral healthcare, urgent care, emergency care, medications and more at little or no cost to qualified Polk County residents. 

“This is a great program for the many, many thousands of people in Polk County that are not insured,” Balogh explains. “What the county has set up is that they’ve contracted with five local hospitals. These include a lot of the Central Florida Health Care clinics and other clinics. If you don’t have health insurance and you qualify under the eligibility requirements, you can become a member of the PHP.” 

There is no cost to join the PHP, and PHP members pay only $1 to see a primary care physician and only $5 for a specialist. In some cases, these costs can even be decreased or waived depending on the individual. 

To qualify for the PHP, the following requirements must be met:

  • You must be an adult Polk County resident
  • You have to be at 200% or lower of the federal poverty level
  • You have to declare that you do not have any other insurance. 

To help Polk County residents find the care they need and to raise awareness about available programs, the Community Wellness Initiative has five Navigators.

“Navigators are individuals who work for UW, who are basically our boots on the ground,” Balogh explains. “They go out into the community, they work the food drops, they do presentations at the Boys & Girls Club, they go to community centers where people are gathering that could use these services. And number one, they give them the information about available services. If people need help discerning where to go, how to go, the Navigators give them direction on that and if they want to apply for the PHP, they help them with that application.”

The Community Wellness Initiative and PHP have already seen impressive success in helping Polk County residents in need access health care.

“We have heard some amazing stories from people that got into the plan and probably otherwise would either be in really serious shape because of the services they were able to receive versus if they didn’t have the plan,” says Balogh. “What we hear the most is, ‘We had no idea this was available; we had no idea we could access these services.’ It’s been really enlightening to members of the community to be able to get this information and know where to locate these services.”
The program has been able to provide 12,000 services in the past year alone, and has helped scores of Polk County residents access healthcare and improve their wellbeing. Balogh left us off with an example of one of the many people whose lives the program has changed.

“We had an individual that we met who was living in a shelter and she had recently been diagnosed with cancer. She was having chemo treatments, which caused a lot of pain, and the problem was she did not have the money to buy the medication to offset the pain. We were able to connect her with the CFHC, who was able to get her in quickly to see a doctor who then prescribed the medication that she was able to get through the pharmacy without any payment,” Balogh recounts. “When you have all those issues facing you and you’re in pain, you really just don’t know what to do and you give up hope. We were able to provide that for her and it was extremely gratifying for us to see her smile and to know that she knew she was going to be taken care of.”

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