New clinic hopes to expand healthcare access in Rockbridge area

By Shefali Konda

Marge Evans, a 37-year-old mother who lives in Buena Vista, says she’s had to wait four months to get her 9-year-old daughter, Jenny, a doctor’s appointment for her regular check-up.

“Since last year when the pandemic hit, it’s been hard to get a doctor’s appointment anywhere,” she said. “I mean there’s the option of doing appointments virtually, but even then, it’s frustrating that I have to wait for months on end. It’s just become such a nightmare.”

Evans is not the only person in the area who’s waited months to see a physician. She said she hopes the new clinic in town will give residents more medical options and reduce waiting lists.

The new Augusta Health Buena Vista Primary Care at 2054 Sycamore Avenue in Buena Vista opened on March 1. The center is designed to expand access to healthcare in Rockbridge County.

The staff at the new Augusta Health Buena Vista Primary Care Clinic. Photo courtesy of Augusta Health Buena Vista Primary Care Clinic.

Dr. Kathy Bogacz said the clinic offers appointment-based primary care services.

“The people in the area seem very enthusiastic,” she said. “I have many patients that have come in that have been thrilled to walk to the clinic from their home. The clinic is truly part of the community.”

A 2018 Rockbridge Area Community Health Assessment Report (RACHA) identified limited access to mental health services, primary care and specialty care as three of the top 10 health issues in the county. The report was conducted by Carilion Clinic and Rockbridge 2020, a network of healthcare providers in the county.

Laura Lee Wight, population health community coordinator of the Central Shenandoah Health District, said high poverty rates impact the health of the community.

“We do know that poverty might limit access to healthy foods, safe neighborhoods, quality education and even access to quality health care that’s affordable,” she said. “All of these things are really going to impact a community’s health, and we do see differences between communities that might have poor social determinants of health.”

In Buena Vista, 27.6% of the population lived below the federal poverty line from 2012 to 2016, more than double the statewide average, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report. Buena Vista has a higher poverty rate than the rest of Rockbridge County and Lexington.

Evans said her husband lost his job as a warehouse supervisor at Lowe’s early last month. She says they’ve been struggling to support their family financially, and she’s working as a housekeeping aide at the local nursing home, Golden Living Center.

“Obviously, I’ll do anything to keep my daughter healthy. But right now, keeping a job is tough. Paying the bills is tough,” she said. “And if I need to skip a doctor’s appointment or two, that’s what I need to do. Besides, I barely have time to breathe these days.”

Just last month, there were two primary care providers in Buena Vista—Dr. Thomas Hamilton’s private practice and Carilion Clinic Family Medicine. Bogacz said she’s heard from patients that Hamilton is near retirement.

“There’s plenty of people that need care here and COVID has only exacerbated this need. Waiting rooms are filling up,” she said. “We want to make sure citizens in the community are getting primary care services to ensure they remain healthy.”

Wight said the pandemic has illuminated health-related issues in the community, including poverty and poor health literacy.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw many families who didn’t have access to reliable income or didn’t have access to healthy foods,” she said. “And when we asked them to isolate because they were positive or exposed, many people weren’t able to do so because they couldn’t take 10 days off their job.”

Bogacz said the clinic isn’t offering vaccines right now. But Augusta Health will provide COVID vaccinations for residents of Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County at the COVID-19 Vaccine Administration Center in the College Square Shopping Center in Lexington.