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Need beats greed

Free clinics find growing niche as health care costs continue to rise

Free clinics find growing niche as health care costs continue to rise

February 10, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

kevinc@herald-mail.com

Another month, another visit to Eastern Panhandle Free Clinic for Linda Ingle.

Since May or June, she has come to the clinic on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Charles Town, W.Va., routinely for check ups and medication.

She has to; sitting in one of the building's four exam rooms, the Summit Point, W.Va., woman has no other choice.

"They've been a lifesaver for me," Ingle says. "I've got a lot of problems and medicine is real expensive."

Open since October 2001, when it occupied donated space across from Jefferson Memorial Hospital, the free clinic continues to expand services to care for a growing population. Thursday, Feb. 13, the clinic will debut a fourth day of service each week. In August, a fifth day will be added.

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The clinic operates with a simple, four-point mission: provide medical care; give prescription assistance; offer specialty referrals; and direct patients to other community resources.

All this for the uninsured, or those below the federal poverty level.

"If you're looking at the spectrum of health care, we're trying to fill gaps in the fabric of health care, and we like to look at our role as helping people on the lowest end," says clinic Interim Director Cathy Burcham. "I think we've brought out or we hope to reach those people who haven't had the access or haven't known that there is someone available to fill that need."

Like Hagerstown's Community Free Clinic at 18 W. Franklin St., Eastern Panhandle Free Clinic depends on volunteer labor to serve its community. Each clinic operates with precious few full-time staffers, including one nurse each.

Roughly 60 volunteers staff the Charles Town clinic, begun by nurse practitioner Leona Richards. Five physicians regularly donate their time to the clinic, supplemented by 27 specialists. Similarly, the Hagerstown clinic, established in 1990, has a stable of 35 doctors, plus more than 100 more who take referrals.

Ingle, who volunteered to share her experience at the clinic, has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support by physicians and staff.

"All these people come in here and give up their time and don't get paid for it," she says. "I think it's such a blessing."

So do executives at both clinics, who continue to see their patient rosters escalate.

Since 1996, says Community Free Clinic Executive Director Jeffrey P. Downin, the number of patient visits in Hagerstown has risen from 6,000 per year to 10,000.

"There's no signs of it going anywhere but up," Downin says. "It's challenging."

Though considerably newer, Burcham has only seen demand in Charles Town rise as well. Mondays and Wednesdays are dedicated to doctor or nurse visits, Fridays are reserved for medication pickups and patient education.

Patients are seen by appointment only, and new clients must provide proof of income for everyone who lives in their home. Clients must live in Jefferson, Berkeley or Morgan counties in West Virginia. Similarly, Downin says, the Community Free Clinic only sees patients living in Washington County.

Even with only three days of service each week, Burcham says the clinic sees between 60 and 75 patients weekly, and before volunteering a year and a half ago, Burcham had no idea of the community's need for clinic services.

"I think most of the volunteers are constantly surprised that there continues to be a need. I think the larger issue here should address the level of poverty that still exists across the tri-county area," she says. "You still see a great many pockets of people with low incomes and poverty. As we spread the word that we're open and we're here, we see more and more of those people from those pockets."

When Richards was starting to form the Eastern Panhandle clinic, she visited Downin in Hagerstown. Gratified to see another clinic up and running, Downin says clinics face a daunting task, in part because they are reliant on community support to survive.

Of its $450,000 to $470,000 annual budget, the vast majority of funds comes from donations. A basement storage area is chock full of medicines and equipment given by residents, doctors and drug companies.

Like its counterpart in Charles Town, the Community Free Clinic would flounder without the support of others.

"Put yourself in the position of having no doctor, no insurance, and you wake up and are sick. You don't have the options other people have," Downin says. "The clinic is there for people who don't have options, no place else to turn except the emergency room."

Operating in part thanks to a three-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Burcham says she is proud of the reputation the clinic has cultivated as a safe, confidential place for residents to receive the health care they need.

So many patients tell staff they don't want to stop using the clinic because of the level of care and comfort they feel. Ingle is one.

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