Although services at HealthReach Community Clinic may look a little different these days, the organization is still going strong.
That’s because chronic illness hasn’t stopped in the face of COVID-19. “Our neighbors still have diabetes, hypertension, emphysema, depression, heart disease. If anything, their problems may be exacerbated by the inaccessibility of other resources,” says Executive Director Dr. Sabrina Niggel.
As the only free medical clinic in Iredell County, HealthReach provides medical care and medications at no cost to low-income Iredell County residents who do not have health insurance. Niggel says that the Coronavirus outbreak has created significant hardship for HealthReach patients, who were already vulnerable both medically and financially.
Most HealthReach patients work at least one job but don’t have the means to pay for health insurance, she said. Now, with the added stress of lost wages, mounting bills, and the spread of COVID-19, their health is at greater risk than ever before.
“It is critical that we keep our patients out of the hospital right now, not only to protect their own health but also to allow our hospitals to devote scarce resources to COVID patients,” Niggel shared. “To do this, our patients need access to health services, medications and supplies to manage their chronic illnesses.”
And that’s where HealthReach steps in.
Temporary service changes
In mid-March, the HealthReach board of directors made a number of decisions to help protect the clinic’s patients, volunteers and staff while still providing important health care services. Most notably, all medical consultations are now conducted via telehealth. Volunteer nurses provide case management and patient education, and physicians and other providers perform as much diagnosis and treatment as possible using phones and computers.
In addition, prescription and over-the-counter medications are dispensed to patients at a makeshift drive-thru pharmacy.
“Our pharmacy is busier than ever,” said HealthReach pharmacist Erin Fields, PharmD. “In March we filled more than twice the prescriptions we filled in January and February.”
Challenges and Needs
Although patients, staff and volunteers have adapted to this new model, there are many challenges. Few patients have the technology necessary for video consultations, so clinicians are limited to phone conversations. Furthermore, few HealthReach patients have the basic supplies at home to monitor and manage their health, such as thermometers, blood pressure monitors, and over-the-counter medications.
Their pharmacy has also been hard hit, especially given supply chain shortages, noted Fields. As an example, they are usually able to obtain several medications that are commonly prescribed for patients, especially those with respiratory conditions, for free.
Not only does HealthReach now have to pay out of pocket for these medications, but they are also now paying higher prices because of nationwide shortages.
In addition to medications, HealthReach tries whenever possible to give patients other supplies they need to stay safe and well at home, such as diabetic supplies, cleaning and hygiene items.
Local faith partners, civic groups and others have made this possible. Williamson’s Chapel United Methodist Church, St. Mark’s Lutheran, Give Soap for Hope, the Mooresville Lion’s Club and others have donated everything from shampoo and vitamins to thermometers and blood pressure cuffs.
Niggel said this support was a godsend, but more support is needed to continue serving patients and keep them safe at home.
“One of the biggest hardships we’re suffering now is the loss of income from our annual HealthReach Heroes Luncheon, which was scheduled to take place March 23 but had to be postponed until the fall due to COVID-19,” shared Niggel. Funds generated from the event were going to be used to pay for operational costs, including the clinic’s utility bills, payroll, and IT expenses, which have increased due to greater reliance on telehealth and electronic medical records.
“The outpouring of support from this community amazes me,” said Niggel. “I have no doubt that our community will continue to help HealthReach provide for our patients and keep them safe.”
HealthReach offers free medical care and medications to individuals living in Iredell County who have no health insurance and who fall below 250% of the federal poverty level. The clinic has been in operation since 2003 and is located at 400 E. Statesville Avenue, in the same block as Iredell County Municipal Services South building.
Volunteer and paid health care professionals provide primary care, a pharmacy, labs, some specialty care, physical therapy, chiropractic services, social work, and referrals for other services. Qualifying patients can enroll at HealthReach and receive free care for up to one year. At the end of the one-year enrollment period, they can re-certify if they still meet eligibility criteria.