• 75°

Suffolk’s insurance-free health care

There is perhaps no more polarizing an argument in national media than the role of government health care.

From rage-filled town hall meetings to down-to-the-wire congressional votes, health care has been the priority of topics dominating the national discussion.

While health care has captured national attention recently, it has been a concern for Suffolk leadership for the past decade.

“People have invested a lot of blood, sweat and tears into getting this idea off the ground, let alone into a concrete building to call a clinic,” said Pamela Witt, Western Tidewater Free Clinic coordinator.

The clinic was a joint venture that brought support and volunteers from many organizations, including the Suffolk Partnership for a Healthy Community, the Western Tidewater Community Services Board and the health department.

When the doors of the Western Tidewater Free Clinic opened in June of 2007, it was an answer for more than 23,000 residents living in the Suffolk-Franklin-Isle of Wight area without health insurance.

Since the clinic has opened, there have been more than 11,000 patient visits to the predominantly volunteer-run clinic.

“We have grown very fast for an organization that’s only been open for two and half years,” Witt said. “God has truly, truly blessed us.”

There was so much traffic to the clinic that volunteers had to move the clinic to a new 8,200-square-foot facility on Meade Parkway just two years after opening the initial clinic on Godwin Boulevard.

“We had so many donations, and a tremendous volunteer base — that really is the lifeblood of our operation — to make it happen,” Witt said. “There were so many people who looked at their neighbors and knew they should never have to choose between getting medical care and buying groceries.”

Witt added that the volunteers were seeing firsthand the need for medical help in their own backyard.

Not to say there was not some help already here.

In 1999, the Suffolk Community Health Center opened in downtown Suffolk. In 2001, the Peninsula Institute for Community Health took over management of the property, and the center became Main Street Physicians.

“The way we work is we offer service to everyone, regardless of income,” said Valda Branch, chief operations officer for PICH. “Or, as we say here, we offer service to everyone, regardless of their abilities to pay.”

Community health centers differ from free clinics in that patients pay on a sliding fee scale, which is determined by the household income and set by federal poverty guidelines.

Additionally, anyone — insured, uninsured or “underinsured” — will be seen at the center.

In free clinics, patients must qualify for care by proving they do not have the means to pay for medical care.

“We can increase the access a community has to medical professionals, because we don’t have the restrictions others do,” Branch said. She added that the health center was deemed necessary in the late ‘90s because the federal government assessed the need in the Western Tidewater, labeling it a “medically underserved area.”

“We get — and we often do — patients from Carolina, Franklin and other places where people are driving in from a long ways,” Branch said. “Again, we don’t have the restrictions that a lot of places do for patients, and they will travel for it.”

While the socioeconomic status of their patients may vary, the goals of both the center and the clinic are the same.

Both Main Street Physicians and the WTFC say their long-term goal is the same: increasing preventative patient care.

“Our focus, really, is preventative health care,” Branch said. “Our focus it to get patients in control of their health before it is a problem, and understand their role in preventative care.”

Both establishments regularly see patients suffering from chronic diseases that are worsened by inadequate access to healthcare providers.

“It’s not acceptable to see people die every day from a chronic or terminal illness that would not have been terminal if detected earlier,” Witt said. “We see patients every day that we have helped to save their lives from basic preventative measures. They’re beaten down and no one to care for them. We give them hope, and we give them compassion.”