By Calvin Pynn, contributor
A little over three months after the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic closed, a new free clinic will soon begin serving low-income and uninsured area residents. The Blue Ridge Free Clinic will launch during the Remote Area Medical (RAM) Clinic, held April 10-11 at the Rockingham County Fairgrounds.
Beginning the following Monday, the Blue Ridge Free Clinic will see patients at its office on the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Way and Reservoir St.
Susan Adamson, a nurse practitioner who will see patients at Blue Ridge Free Clinic and chairs its board of directors, said the RAM Clinic will offer an opportunity to identify patients with long unaddressed health issues and direct them to care.
“When they do these screenings at the fairgrounds, they’re going to find people with hypertension that’s serious, or unknown diabetes, and we want to be there for those patients who don’t have a primary care home,” Adamson said.
While the RAM clinic could potentially see thousands of people showing up for medical care, she said that could mean an influx of new patients for Blue Ridge Free Clinic.
“For RAM, it’s always unknown in terms of how many people are going to show up that day and how many are going to come with problems that need medical follow up and I’m sure we’re going to have plenty of work to do,” Adamson said.
Adamson was a provider at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic and worked on transitioning patients to new primary care providers when the clinic closed. Since the closing was announced, she has worked with a group of other local healthcare providers to plan the launch of a new free clinic.
Adamson said Blue Ridge will be a no-barrier free clinic.
“[That] means we plan to let anybody who walks through the door find out what their needs are and if we can help them, we certainly will. If we can’t help them, we want to help them get to where they can have their needs met, and so we’re going to be a bridge to health,” Adamson said.
For example, that could mean seeing a patient who had been approved for Medicaid but was still waiting on their card, helping someone enroll in Medicaid if they are eligible, but unaware of it.
“Navigation is huge for us. We’re really planning to spend a lot of time getting people to the best place, and so some people may not have a better place and they’ll end up staying with us and being our patients,” Adamson said.
The Free Clinic will focus on serving those in the local ALICE population, which stands for Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. They will also provide geriatric care for elderly members of Harrisonburg’s immigrant community who have not been able to work the required number of hours to qualify for Medicare since coming to the United States.
Dental care will be available through the free clinic, from dentists who have volunteered to treat patients at their own practices, along with mental health services, which will be provided on site. While the clinic will open in a small office with two exam rooms, the founders plan to move to a larger space to accommodate more patients and volunteer providers in five exam rooms.
Ted Sudol, secretary for the Blue Ridge Free Clinic’s board of directors, said they plan to assess staffing and patient-care needs during its first few months.
“We hope it’s going to happen slow enough that we don’t have to be putting people off for long periods of time, but if we have to open for more hours per week, we’ve got the volunteers who can make that happen, and we have space,” Sudol said.
The initial plan for the clinic is to be open Monday and Thursday mornings from 9 am to 12 pm, and Tuesday evenings from 5:30 to 8 pm. All staff will be volunteers, from those working the front desk to providers seeing patients.
“We’re using a model that on the one hand would look old-school because that’s how the free clinic was in Harrisonburg 30 years ago. But it’s not really old-school, because it is still being used all across the country all through the Commonwealth by free clinics that are doing just fine,” Sudol said.
Adamson said the clinic may consider hiring paid staff members in the future if the need arises and funds are available. But for the time being, she pointed out that the volunteer staffing also allows for some flexibility to care for patients with more medically complex needs, such as mental illness or substance abuse issues.
“In this day and age, most medical practices can’t spend an hour to an hour and a half with one patient. Well, since we’re all volunteers, we can do an hour to an hour and a half visit if we want to, so that’s going to be another focus,” Adamson said.
She expects prescription medications to be among the clinic’s greatest expenses.
“We’re going to access pharmaceutical companies in terms of getting chronic medications, but there’s about a 30-day gap between when we can apply for patients to get medical chronic medications to when we’re actually going to have to purchase them. So we need people to dig deep and commit to regularly giving if they are able to help,” Adamson said.
Blue Ridge Free Clinic will initially depend on funding from donors, but will also apply for grants, and there are plans to pursue corporate sponsorships. Sudol said they also hope to obtain funding in the City of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County’s budgets – just as both the city and county had funded the Harrisonburg Rockingham-Free Clinic.
He also stressed that despite some inherent similarities, the Blue Ridge Clinic is a brand new entity, particularly due to its volunteer and donor-driven model. However, patients from the former clinic can still expect to see some familiar faces.
“We’re not the old free clinic, this isn’t the free clinic 2.0. But our clinicians are people that these patients, if they saw them once before, they’re going to see them again, and so that level of trust will be there,” Sudol said.
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