This Warner Robins medical clinic provides free health care
Todd Story doesn’t know what he would do without Hands of Grace Medical Clinic in Warner Robins. Before the clinic opened in fall 2017, Story, 53, hadn’t visited a doctor’s office in ages. He couldn’t afford it.
A few years ago, Story felt so sick he rushed to an emergency room, thinking he had the flu. When he got there, Story learned his blood pressure was through the roof. A doctor prescribed a medication to regulate his blood flow and suggested he start seeing a primary care physician, to keep the condition in check.
How would he pay for his medicine? What doctor would accept an uninsured patient? Story works at a nearby automotive service center, but his employer doesn’t cover his health insurance. Like many of Georgia’s uninsured residents, he earns too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to afford private coverage.
Georgia has the fourth-highest uninsured rate in the country – a whopping 13.4 percent – and is one of just 14 states that has still opted not to expand Medicaid. For low-income adults not insured through an employer, health care is often out of reach.
At Hands of Grace, Story doesn’t have to worry about his insurance status. The clinic caters specifically to uninsured patients and offers all its services free of charge. From 9 a.m.-3 p.m. on the first and third Saturday of every month, volunteer clinicians provide primary care, mental health counseling, reflexology and women’s health checks to those who may have nowhere else to turn.
After years without medical care, Story now gets his blood pressure checked every few months, whenever he needs a refill of the free medication he receives at the clinic.
“This is the place to go,” Story said, “because they will look out for you and make sure you get your meds.”
Making health care more accessible
Nurse practitioner Jaimi Norrell opened the free medical clinic in 2017 to serve a group of patients she feared might otherwise fall through the cracks. She’d noticed many of her fellow parishioners praying for their health each Sunday at church and wondered if there was some way she could help.
Norrell knows what it’s like to struggle with medical bills. She’s practiced medicine for nearly two decades – first as a nurse and then as a nurse practitioner – and she’s accepted jobs over the years that didn’t offer affordable health insurance.
When one of her children fell ill, Norrell didn’t know how she’d pay for treatment. She felt completely helpless. Because she’s been on the other side of the insurance gap, Norrell appreciates the importance of free health care. When patients have to choose between paying for health insurance or buying groceries, she said, they might postpone medical care and hope for the best.
“They feel bad about not coming to the doctor, but, financially, they can’t,” she said.
Norrell hopes to make basic health care accessible for anyone in Middle Georgia not covered by insurance. She’s transformed a corridor of Abundant Grace Church on Watson Boulevard into a makeshift clinic, with six patient rooms, a few scales and a storage room filled with stacks of medications and medical supplies. Local physicians’ offices donated nearly everything, Norrell said.
Hands of Grace is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and relies on volunteers and donations to serve between 20 and 30 patients each session. Norrell has recruited dozens of volunteers through Facebook and word of mouth to give up a few hours on a Saturday to help out.
“It’s just God sending them this way,” she said.
Nurse practitioner Sam Collier said he feels like he’s doing “God’s work” when he treats patients at the clinic. Collier has volunteered at each session since his first shift in January because he wants to help those who can’t find services anywhere else.
Many of Collier’s patients are in between jobs or self-employed, he said. Some come in with cold or flu symptoms, and others need help managing chronic illnesses, like hypertension. Collier hopes the clinic will help uninsured patients practice better self care, before their illnesses reach emergency levels.
Several patients have told Norrell they don’t know if they’d be alive without Hands of Grace. That’s why she’s made it as easy as possible for those in need to access health care. Patients aren’t required to present an ID or pay stubs. All they have to do is fill out one piece of paper to confirm they don’t have insurance.
“I’m trying to encourage people to not be afraid to come and get health care,” Norrell said.
Even though the clinic is free, she said, no services are cut short. The lobby, decorated with oil paintings and always filled with chatter, is warm and inviting, Norrell said.
“We don’t rush you in and out,” she said. “You’re actually seen and treated like you would be anywhere else.”
Norrell knows her clinic is needed in the community. Since October, 2017, Hands of Grace has treated more than 320 patients. She hopes to spread the word to even more patients in need.
“I feel like if I can at least make a difference in one person’s life,” she said, “then that means that I’m doing something right.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/smax1996 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. You can also join her Facebook group. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.