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Eastern Panhandle free clinic expands in services, facilities

October 23, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.VA. - When the Eastern Panhandle Free Clinic opened five years ago in a building on Fifth Avenue in Ranson, W.Va., it was open one day a week and served about 20 to 30 patients a day, remembers Leona Cook, the nurse practitioner who founded the clinic.

Now, the clinic that offers medical care free to its clients, is open five days a week and averages about 200 patients a week, Cook said.

There are three examination rooms in the clinic's current home on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Charles Town, and clinic workers are trying to find ways to convert other rooms to serve a growing number of patients, Cook said.

Because of a lack of medical providers, it can take up to five weeks to be seen at the clinic, Cook said.

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"The need is really growing in this area," Cook said.

With its first five years completed, officials are planning a campaign to raise money for a new clinic that would better serve the needs of local residents, Cook said.

Cook said it is too early to predict the size or cost of a new facility. The next step will be finding an architect willing to donate time to the clinic to draw plans for a new facility, Cook said.

Clinic officials are hoping that as the clinic expands, more staff can be brought on board to give quicker service, Cook said.

The idea for the clinic started when Cook was working as a home health-care nurse and saw firsthand how people were struggling with high medical costs.

Patients often took matters into their own hands, regardless of doctors' orders, Cook said.

Because patients could not afford their medicines, they would sometimes cut pills into four sections to stretch them out, Cook said.

Other people would take blood pressure medicine one month, and their diabetes medicine the following month, thinking that would be enough to treat their complications, Cook said.

The family nurse practitioner went to the medical staff at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in Ranson and won their support for a clinic.

Doctors at the hospital agreed to volunteer time at the clinic, while professionals in the community agreed to form a board of directors to run the center, Cook said.

Medications that are distributed to patients are donated to the clinic, and doctors routinely donate services like hernia operations.

"If everybody does just a little bit, then we are able to get a lot done," Cook said.

The clinic has been supported by local United Way funding and financial assistance from local communities, the Jefferson County Commission and other organizations, Cook said.

The average patient at the clinic is about 50 years old, has no insurance and is considered low-income, Cook said.

Many patients cannot get medical insurance because it is not offered by their employers or because they have pre-existing conditions, Cook said.

When Maggie Keeler of Harpers Ferry, W.Va., visited the clinic five years ago, she was suffering from severe colitis.

"None of the insurance companies would touch her," Cook said.

Keeler used the clinic because she could not afford medication as part of her follow-up care. Keeler continues to go to the clinic for her medication and volunteers there.

"It's been a lifesaver for me," Keeler said.

To qualify for care at the clinic, patients must be in a certain low-income bracket and have no health insurance.

For more information about the clinic, call 304-724-6091.

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