The novel coronavirus pandemic has highlighted various health crises. Among them has been a surge in unemployment, causing many Americans to lose employer-sponsored health insurance.
This lack of coverage can result in less access to care, and can increase prevalence of and effective management of chronic illnesses, particularly among people of color.
Fortunately, the Lakelands is home to two nonprofits with free medical clinic services available to help those in need — Community Initiatives La Clinica Gratis/The Free Clinic, and Greater Greenwood United Ministry’s Free Medical Clinic, which recently expanded services to include women’s health. Following are two stories highlighting services from the two nonprofits.
According to a 2020 Commonwealth Fund survey, more than 43 percent of working-age adults had inadequate health insurance when the novel coronavirus pandemic hit. The Commonwealth Fund is a private foundation started by philanthropist Anna M. Harkness, in 1918. The fund supports independent research on health care issues. Its headquarters are in New York, New York.
Before finding La Clinica Gratis in Greenwood, “Buly” Duran, 49, admits she often went to hospital emergency rooms for primary medical care.
Bouts of vertigo first prompted Duran to seek the clinic.
“Ever since then, she’s been getting her general health screenings here,” says Teri Rodriguez, Clinica Gratis translator/clinic manager.
Duran’s home country is Mexico. She’s been a patient at Clinica Gratis for about 11 years and is employed as a restaurant cook. She and her family have been in the United States for 17 years.
On a recent clinic visit in early March, Duran was scheduled for cancer screenings.
“She has other health issues,” Rodriguez explained. “She also has high blood pressure, but now, it’s being controlled … through a combination of diet and lifestyle changes, plus medication. Before she knew she had high blood pressure, she had a brain aneurysm May 29 of 2020. She survived that and is getting care to prevent that from happening again.”
Duran said her symptoms before the aneurysm were headache, dizziness and eye twitching. She had also vomited.
At the time, Duran was home alone, but she called her husband. Duran spent 11 days in a Greenville hospital.
Duran said she tells others about Clinica Gratis/The Free Clinic, including a young woman who might not have otherwise known she had breast cancer.
“This woman, a friend of hers, was really young,” Rodriguez said. “She came to the clinic just for a regular checkup and we asked if she wanted to get cancer screenings while she was here. That’s when we found out she had cancer.”
Clinica Gratis is a medical home for people with no insurance or inadequate insurance coverage, serving some 7,000 patients in a six-county area. Counties include: Greenwood, Saluda, Abbeville, McCormick, Edgefield and Laurens.
“The most comforting thing for me is the free services and seeing my health improving and answers to my questions,” Duran said, with Rodriguez translating for her during the interview.
Soon, La Clinica Gratis will open its new location at 212 Overland Drive in Greenwood.
Teresa S. Goodman, Community Initiatives executive director, says the difference between the current La Clinica Gratis site and the new one “will leave you speechless.”
The new facility is handicapped accessible and has three exam rooms designed for patient privacy, office space for clinic personnel and CI administration, a conference room, intake and triage, restrooms, a waiting area and more.
“There are a lot of improvements and it’s going to make us a more efficient medical practice,” Goodman said, noting board members, staff and others affiliated with CI are lending a hand with renovation volunteer hours. “Anything you would come to a family doctor for, you can come to us at La Clinica Gratis.”
Goodman said La Clinica Gratis works to address conditions in the environments in which people live and work that can affect health, such as availability of safe housing, food and educational support.
“Health is more than your physical body,” Goodman explained. “A patient became very emotional one day. She broke down in front of our medical provider one day because the patient was living in her car. We have to address the true stressors in people’s lives to get them healthy and change a cycle.”
Leslie MacTaggart Myers, a nurse practitioner who has volunteered with La Clinica Gratis for more than a decade to provide gynecological care, said the clinic serves a broad population, not just Latinos.
“Access is the key,” Myers said. “People with fewer resources are challenged in many ways. Most people are not exposed to the level of poverty we have. People need access to health care, medications, healthy foods and a safe place to sleep and exercise.”
It can be a challenge, even in a community the size of Greenwood, to find primary care providers who are accepting new patients, Myers noted, but La Clinica Gratis is.
“It’s important people know we do provide bilingual services because that is a population that has more limited resources for care,” Myers said. “But, we serve any eligible patient in Greenwood and surrounding counties. … We are kind of a gateway to other services, especially pregnant women. … We get them connecting into regular obstetrical care with Montgomery Center for Family Medicine.”
Myers said it takes dedicated volunteers, who do not have to be health care providers, to help clinics run smoothly.
Partnering with Community Initiatives on the new free clinic is Greenwood Area Habitat for Humanity.
Stephen Baggett Jr., Greenwood Area Habitat for Humanity executive director, said “during the pandemic, having a decent place to live means more than having affordable shelter. It means having a safe and healthy community.”
Baggett said Habitat has a role to play in making that a reality.
“We are partnering with Community Initiatives, our contractors and our regular volunteers, are taking part in this project,” Baggett Jr. said. “I hope this will foster goodwill, so that people can see there are still those who work for good and that agencies are willing to help wherever we can.”
The nonprofit housing organization is renovating the building at the new clinic site, which was built in 1994 under the direction of Jac Ulman, in connection with the department of mental health.
“If a person needs me and Community Initiatives, they may very well need Stephen (Baggett Jr.) and Habitat for Humanity,” Goodman said. “Collaboration and working together to better serve our community means we are both going to meet our mission and do a better job, taking care of our community.”
Rodriguez said the underinsured includes those whose health insurance programs don’t qualify them for services such as yearly wellness checkups, cancer screenings or sick visits.
“The biggest population we serve is the Latino population,” Rodriguez said. “But, we serve everybody who needs our services. … Our patients often have a bunch of questions when they come for a visit because many have not been to a doctor in a long time. They might have a bunch of medical issues. … Some of the most common issues we see and treat are chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. … The Latino community doesn’t like to take a lot of medication. Often, patients will ask about modifications to diet and lifestyle they can try before medication.”
Recently, Clinica Gratis also began partnering with Whole Life Dental for comprehensive services, including cleaning, root canals and more.
The novel coronavirus pandemic should make “people open their eyes” to the realities of the underinsured and uninsured when it comes to health care, said Sanquinette Brownlee, La Clinica Gratis medical director and family nurse practitioner.
“It could happen to anybody,” Brownlee said. “We have a lot of first-time patients, who, because of job loss, had insurance but lost it, when they lost their jobs. Medical providers won’t see them without insurance and they need a medical home and a place to get their medications.”
“We are also getting started with our Wise Women program, looking at cardiac health needs of women ages 40 to 64,” Brownlee said. “We also partner with Self Regional to provide women’s health needs such as mammograms. We also have nurse practitioner here who specializes in women’s health, Jessica Brown.”
“Pre-COVID-19, we also partnered with my church in Abbeville, Flat Rock AME, for a satellite clinic, Brownlee said. “Health services are only one part of Community Initiatives. We also have youth and prevention programs, after-school and summer youth programs, teen summits and enrichment programs, adult and senior programs.
Brownlee’s background is in emergency nursing and she also teaches nursing courses with Anderson University.
Rodriguez said the new clinic building is easier to find, closer to pharmacies, labs and Self Regional Medical Center, plus the new clinic doesn’t have flights of stairs for people to navigate.
La Clinica Gratis was one of the original tenants of the United Center for Community Care on Phoenix Street. Its former space can be made available for rent once vacated.
“I’ve been with Community Initiatives for 12 years,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been waiting for this moment, so we can grow and I’m finally going to be able to have an office.”
At the time of these interviews, Clinica Gratis was awaiting rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine to administer to eligible patients requesting it.
“With COVID-19, patients are having a lot of different questions, about symptoms they might be having and concerns that it might be COVID-19,” said Myra Rhodes, Clinica Gratis triage nurse.