The floor-to-ceiling glass windows are heavily tinted and the inside is hidden behind rows of curtains. Security cameras monitor every corner, and only patients with an appointment and valid identification can pass through the intentionally cramped entrance area. A receptionist sits behind a glass window. The more comfortable waiting room is through the next locked door.
The small sign above this new health clinic reads: Planned Parenthood.
It’s a politically charged name these days, given the current state of health care in America, and the many attempts in recent years to de-fund the national nonprofit organization known for its reproductive and women’s health care services, including abortions. Protesters and violence against Planned Parenthood doctors and staff are not uncommon.
But despite all this, Planned Parenthood just opened its second health center in Hillsborough County. It sits in a nondescript shopping plaza off a busy stretch of Bearss Avenue, sandwiched between an orthodontist office, a veterinary center and a pizza place.
Hillsborough is only the second county in the Central and Southwest Florida chapter with two such centers, thanks to growing demand for patient services in the Tampa Bay area, said Dr. Suzie Prabhakaran, vice president of medical affairs for Planned Parenthood in Florida. The new North Tampa clinic, which opened in October, also will serve patients from Pasco and Polk counties, two regions that Planned Parenthood has identified as among the most in need because of high rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, and poor access to abortion providers.
Hillsborough County had the highest rates of HIV contraction in the state, according to state health department data from 2015. At the time, Florida saw the sharpest spike in the number of new HIV diagnoses in the nation. In addition, diagnoses of other STDs like chlamydia continue to be more common in the Tampa Bay area than other parts of the state.
Like many other health care providers, Planned Parenthood experienced a surge in patients after passage of the Affordable Care Act, though the organization is known for offering low rates for services to those with or without access to insurance.
Orange County, which serves the Orlando metro area, is the only other region in the chapter with two Planned Parenthood clinics. The Palm Beach and Miami areas have multiple clinics.
"We were on a two-week wait for appointments at the other clinic in Tampa," said Julia Chueh, health center manager at the new Planned Parenthood location at 246 E. Bearss Ave. The other clinic is located at 8068 N. 56th St. in Tampa. There’s also one at 33 Sixth St. S in St. Petersburg.
The new location is minutes away from the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, using Interstate 275, Chueh said.
"USF has its own student health services but some people might want more privacy than that, which we can give them here," she said. "It’s important to us that patients feel safe here."
For years, Planned Parenthood has come under fire from religious and politically conservative groups for its abortion services. Because of Florida’s gun-friendly climate and general opposition to abortion, the organization has become more focused on security.
In contrast to the closed-off exterior, the inside of the clinic is bright and colorful. Contemporary furniture lines the edges of the waiting room. On the walls are photos of smiling faces that suggest a diverse group of patients, from women of all races, to people of all sexual and gender identities and income levels. Signs around the office and all pamphlets are written in English and Spanish.
Many services and prescriptions are available the same day as a patient’s scheduled appointment.
"People have this perception of Planned Parenthood, which most of the time is just not the case. It’s important for people to know the high quality of care we provide, yes, at a low cost, but all physicians here are board certified and keep up with the most recent data," Prabhakaran said. "I think patients are surprised when they’re first referred to us."
There are two sizeable exam rooms and a recovery bay with several reclining chairs in the new Tampa clinic. The clinic has its own laboratory and several rooms and offices where patients can talk to Planned Parenthood doctors or counselors, or just breast feed in private. Patients waiting in recovery can watch Netflix from provided Amazon Kindles or enjoy the free Wifi.
Two doctors man the Tampa center, which offers a wide range of reproductive health services. That includes abortion, routine gynecological services like birth control prescriptions, cancer screenings and transgender hormone therapy. Every patient is screened by trained staff for intimate partner violence, Chueh said.
And Planned Parenthood still gives out free condoms.
"The biggest issue I see in Tampa Bay is that sex is still so stigmatized," said Linnea Dewees, a community health educator with Planned Parenthood who works generally in local high schools and middle schools. "Most of my job is just coaching young people through their options and reminding them that we exist."
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.