Dr. Lynn Denny examines patient Deborah Nicholson on Sunday during a regular checkup at the Macon Volunteer Clinic. Nicholson, who like all patients at the clinic is uninsured, first came to the clinic when she suffered what she describes as a major illness.
Without the Macon Volunteer Clinic, Raymond Green might be sitting on a couch at home, unable to do much because of high blood pressure.
Although his employer offers health insurance, Green, 32, can’t afford to buy it. Last year, with his blood pressure in the 180/100 range, he learned from friends about the clinic, which treats patients who are employed but uninsured or underinsured.
“The people are friendly, and they feel compassion,” Green said of the clinic’s volunteers. “It’s not that they just give you medicine; they actually want to find out what’s wrong and try to help you. ... If this place didn’t exist, I’d still have high blood pressure and sitting around with headaches every day. They’ve helped me keep it under control.”
Green said not only was he treated for his condition, but the clinic also scheduled him to meet with a dietitian about controlling his weight to help keep his hypertension at bay.
Monday marks the clinic’s 10th anniversary.
In the past decade, the clinic has far exceeded the expectations of founder Dr. Chapin Henley, who came up with the idea of creating a volunteer clinic in Macon after reading a Newsweek article about a similar facility in Hilton Head, S.C.
“They had over 200 retired doctors on Hilton Head, and there were 10,000 people without health care,” Henley said.
The retired OB-GYN said he knew back then there was a similar need in Macon, where one in five residents don’t have adequate health insurance. He wanted to change things.
“My preacher daddy used to say, ‘What have you done for someone else today?’ ” he said.
While others who had worked in similar clinics in other states told him it would take two or three years to launch a free clinic, Henley said the Macon community came together quickly. With a Peyton Anderson Foundation grant and the cooperation of current and retired medical personnel who volunteered their time and expertise, things really got rolling. The clinic opened within a year, in February 2003.
Now, the clinic has more than 100 volunteers and a running tally of about 38,000 patient visits, including more than 5,500 in 2012 alone. In addition to offering basic health care, the clinic also offers basic dental and eye care.
“I would not have believed it was going to get this big,” Henley said. “I’m sort of a dreamer, I guess.”
Filling a need
Cile Lind, the clinic’s executive director, said much of its success can be traced to community partnerships. The clinic receives no state or federal funding but enjoys a good relationship with local foundations and Macon’s two main hospitals -- The Medical Center of Central Georgia and Coliseum Medical Centers. In addition, the clinic has an excellent and mutually beneficial relationship with local colleges, Lind said.
Mercer University medical students run a Saturday clinic that allows more hours for treatment, while getting valuable experience. The facility is one of 14 student-run clinics in the nation, Lind said.
The volunteer clinic has a similar partnership with Georgia College & State University’s nurse practitioner program, as well as the dental technician program at Central Georgia Technical College.
To be treated at the volunteer clinic, patients must be employed and earn 200 percent below the poverty level. The age range of patients is 18 to 64, since younger patients are covered under PeachCare while older patients qualify for Medicare.
“This is for the working, uninsured or underinsured adults in Bibb County,” Lind said. “These are people in the service industry, the people who sit with the elderly, people who do child care, the people who serve your food. There’s a lot of self-employed people. ... Most of (the patients) earn just enough to not qualify for government assistance.”
Before coming to the clinic, about 60 percent of the patients used an emergency room for all their health care issues, Lind said. Once they go to the clinic for health care, only 1 percent go back to an emergency room.
Lind noted that the clinic provides a safety net to people who have switched jobs and may have to wait a certain amount of time to qualify for insurance.
Much of the clinic’s work is helping people manage chronic conditions, such as hypertension or diabetes, Lind said. In addition, the clinic helps patients get prescriptions, usually in partnership with the local hospitals, at no cost. The clinic has given patients about $2.75 million worth of free medicine in the past decade. It also works with the local Lion’s Club to get patients eyeglasses.
Dr. Lynn Denny, the clinic’s medical director, said the clinic is creating a healthy work force.
“They’re working two jobs, but they need help,” she said of the patients. “They’re often going without medical care. ... We’re also trying to educate patients about healthy eating, healthy lifestyles. A lot of times, it takes more than a pill.”
Lind said the clinic is always looking to expand its services, while Denny said she hopes to involve more specialists in the future for referrals on certain cases.
While the clinic offers basic dental care, Lind said she hopes to offer a wider range of services, such as fillings. In addition, she wants to start working with mental health practitioners to offer services to the clinic’s patients.
One uncertainty facing the future of the clinic is President Barack Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as Obamacare) and what its impact might mean. It’s set to take effect in 2014.
“It either means we’re not going to have much to do, or we’re going to have more to do,” Henley said. “But the folks here need us now. They have diabetes now. They have high blood pressure now.”
Part of why it’s difficult to measure Obamacare’s impact on the clinic is because the state hasn’t decided whether it will accept the new regulations. States can opt out of the plan, but they would lose millions of dollars in federal funding.
“There’s only two ways it can go for us,” Lind said. “Either it will eliminate us or strengthen our position in the market. ... Initially, it’s going to be extremely confusing. In Massachusetts with Romneycare, the number of volunteer clinics is rising. And people changing jobs, during that transition, they’ll have no insurance during that time. ... Until the government comes up with a plan of action, a lot of it is still up in the air. But as long as there are sick people without insurance, we plan to stay here and offer assistance to this community.”
To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.