The first free health clinic offering comprehensive services ran this past weekend, with more than 600 people receiving care from about 350 volunteer healthcare providers. Motivated to help folks in communities hit by record-breaking flooding last summer, West Virginia Health Right partnered with the nonprofit Remote Area Medical to offer the free health clinic over two days.
The event was based at Elkview Middle School in Kanawha County – the heart of the flood zone. Volunteers in bright green shirts sat in rows at lunch tables checking patients in. They asked for a name and the service desired, but little else. Unlike many free clinics, everyone was welcome, regardless of medical insurance status.
“This is an event that we’re saying right up front – you know no judgement zone – we know there are challenges out there,” said Angie Settle, CEO of West Virginia Health Right.
“We know you might have insurance, but we also know there’s a $5,000, $10,000 deductible, and rather than take that and go buy yourself a pair of glasses or do something for yourself, you may take your child to the doctor, or you’re going without,” she said.
Health Right began planning the clinic just three or four days after the June 2016 floods that devastated much of the central and southeastern parts of the state. It’s the first clinic of its kind in West Virginia, although Remote Area Medical – the partnering non-profit group – has been holding these types of clinics around the world since 1985.
Settle said even without the flood many of these families were struggling.
“So you think… ‘Do I want to have groceries this week, or can I take $125 and go to the eye doctor?’” said Settle. “A lot of times they are just going to skip it.”
We’re in a classroom where 20 dental chairs are set up. Volunteer providers clean teeth, fill cavities, and extract rotten or broken teeth.
“It’s obvious the need’s there, just from the severity of the mouths we’re seeing,” she said. “Somebody had seven teeth extracted at one time. So think about that…. Somebody’s teeth are so diseased that they had to have seven teeth extracted at once.”
Because a lot of insurance plans, including Medicaid, do not cover preventive dental care or eye exams, the vast majority of the patients came for those two services, Settle said.
Two were Patricia Taylor and her adult daughter Amanda.
“We had our teeth pulled, we had our eyes examined, and it was wonderful,” said Patricia. She held a napkin over the front of her mouth where four teeth had been pulled. Neither Taylor had insurance.
Patricia said her retirement plus Social Security is $100 a month too high to qualify for Medicaid and private insurance is too expensive. Her daughter Amanda was struggling with health issues and recently stopped working – she said she does qualify for Medicaid, but had yet to enroll.
When I met them they had already been at the clinic almost 12 hours, having begun waiting at 1 that morning.
“This gave us an opportunity to get some services done that we couldn’t afford, or we’d have to put some type of bill on hold to try and get that done,” said Amanda.
Patricia gave the example of getting poison ivy several weeks earlier. It cost her $107 to go to her primary care provider – money she took from her utility bill.
The clinic had providers had in almost every discipline – chiropractic, physical therapy, orthopedics. All were volunteers.
“Everybody here is putting in their own time, time they could be working and making money to give us an opportunity to get some kind of preventative or maintenance care,” said Amanda.
By far the most popular were dentists and eye doctors. Patients were able to come in, get a full eye exam, and receive a pair of glasses made the same day.
As the day wore on, though, the volunteer providers had to turn away patients seeking dental and vision care. Settle hopes to recruit more of these providers next year, especially since the event will likely grow as word gets out.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation.