By Zebrina Edgerton-Maloy
For the four in 10 Rockbridge area residents who are low-income, getting health care can be nearly impossible, whether or not they have insurance.
A newly expanded Rockbridge Area Health Center hopes to give those people some options.
Katy Datz, director of development and outreach, said the health center now provides residents with extended access to health services.
“Now, we can accept Medicaid patients” and people with other types of insurance, Datz said. “We [will also] continue to provide a health safety net for the uninsured.”
For more than two decades, the health center was a free clinic.
Dr. Jane Horton, president of the board of directors, said the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic served only low-income patients who did not have health insurance.
“As a community health center… more community members can benefit from the health care services provided by the [health center] than would when we were a free clinic,” Horton said in an email. “The [Rockbridge Area Health Center] can now see all patients, regardless of insurance status or income.”
Because nearly half of Rockbridge County is what the federal government calls medically underserved, the health center decided to expand healthcare services to serve those both with and without health insurance.
Part of its expansion includes a financial assistance policy that guarantees no one will be denied health care services because of an inability to pay for it.
Primary medical, dental and behavioral care are also being increased. That includes a medication-assistance program, 24-hour nursing assistance and access to an online communications portal for patients.
The changes were made possible through a federal grant that the Health Resources and Services Administration awarded the health center in 2013. The grant provided the nonprofit organization with approximately $775,000 for 2014.
The grant covers employee salaries, equipment and services.
Organizations including the United Way of Rockbridge also provided funding. The United Way currently supports the health center’s pediatric dental program.
Michael Smitka, president of the United Way, said the health center now has a mobile pediatric dental program that fits the United Way’s “Community Impact” initiative.
The health center’s pediatric dental program is offered in local schools and “serves [children] in the community who otherwise would never get their teeth attended to,” Smitka said.
With about $300,000 from local donations, the health center also spent much of the past year renovating its building at 25 Northridge Lane.
Renovations include the addition of four medical exam rooms, a medical laboratory, a dental laboratory and a larger space to see more patients.
The renovations, scheduled to be finished in mid-April, weren’t completed until early September.
“But the main demolition and the huge renovations were completed this summer,” Datz said. “The renovations have sort of taken a little longer just because we tweaked some things towards the end of construction.”
The health center has more than 3,600 patient visits annually, Horton said. But center officials hope to provide more than 14,000 visits a year by 2016.
Datz said the health center has already seen an increase in visits, and plans are to respond to that by adding staff in the coming year.
“We’re currently … increasing the number of medical providers so we can increase the number of patients,” she said.