By Micah Fleet
For Rockbridge County’s uninsured residents, 2013 will mean big changes at the local free clinic, which will start off the year with expanded services and a new name that no longer has “Free” in it.
The clinic, which offers healthcare, a prescription pharmacy, dental work and mental health counseling to impoverished county citizens, has been operating for the past 20 years.
But it is not a walk-in clinic. To receive care, patients must apply and either show that they are below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, or produce an insurance card.
Under its new name, Rockbridge Area Health Center, the clinic will offer those same services to uninsured citizens on a sliding fee scale. Patients who qualify for the sliding scales still must produce evidence of low income.
Clinic Director Suzanne Sheridan said those uninsured patients — whom she calls “working poor” — will be able to pay in part for their healthcare.
“Working poor have income and want to pay,” Sheridan said. “They want to participate in their care. They want to be able to give something.”
She said most of the clinic’s patients would pay fees ranging from $1 to $5.
Earlier this year, the clinic’s board of directors analyzed previous medical studies of Rockbridge County, finding that 19 percent of the population is uninsured and 38 percent qualify as low-income residents.
Virginia’s state health board this month listed Rockbridge County as an under-served medical area. Sheridan said that was when the clinic decided it had to step in.
“It’s a question of access to care,” she said, “not if (low-income citizens) are insured or no.”
Sheridan said a majority of the clinic’s patients could be insured as soon as 2014 thanks to “Obamacare,” the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The federal law will allow people at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty line to receive Medicaid coverage. If Virginia opts into the program, Sheridan said the clinic might have to change the way it does business.
“We’d have to make a decision,” she said. “Do we want to get into billing Medicaid or does our service arrangement change in some way?”
Right now, the clinic does not bill insurance companies.
To meet its patients’ needs, the clinic relies on volunteers like registered nurse Dorothy Fogo. She has been with the clinic for all of its 20 years and remembers when there was no paid staff. Now she is on the board.
Courtney Brooks, a 23-year-old graduate of the University of California at Irvine, said she volunteers because a friend told her the clinic could use more people.
“I just kind of walked in one day and asked if they could use a hand. One month later, here I am,” she said.
The clinic is holding workshops to educate its volunteers about the upcoming changes before they go into effect in January.