Free health clinic opens this fall in Westminster

Access Carroll facility to offer care to nearly 2,000 patients annually

July 12, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A newly formed nonprofit group will open a free health clinic this fall in Westminster, a facility that will offer primary care to as many as 2,000 needy patients annually.

Access Carroll signed a lease Friday for about 2,000 square feet in a downtown office building and will begin renovations for examining rooms, medical suites and a reception area.

The clinic will initially offer health-care service during business hours on weekdays, but it expects to expand to evenings and weekends.

"In any community, there is an ever-increasing number of uninsured," said Larry L. Leitch, director of the Carroll County Health Department. "Every year, more and more people fall off the insurance rolls. If you open a free clinic, no matter how big you make it, you will be inundated."

In Maryland, about 800,000 residents lack health insurance, and about 14,000 of those people live in Carroll County, health officials said.

"There are another 25,000 people here who are underinsured with co-pays and deductibles so high that they don't go to the doctor," said Dr. Robert P. Wack, a pediatrician who is an Access Carroll committee member. "We hope to reach those people."

Mission of Mercy, a mobile health clinic that offers free medical care and prescriptions at seven sites in Maryland, operates in Westminster one day a week. Its patient numbers increased by nearly 350 last year, swelling the number of patient visits to 2,240. The traveling clinic often treats 100 people a day.

"This will be exactly like Mission of Mercy, but bigger and here every weekday," said Wack, a Westminster councilman. "No matter how hard it tries, Mission of Mercy cannot meet the need here, but they have inspired this community to take their mission on."

The county Health Department has not been able to expand the limited community clinic it has operated for about five years in its building on Center Street in Westminster.

"The Health Department was seeing about 1,000 patients a year, and it was clear they could have seen many more," Wack said. "There were staff and space shortages, and as a state agency, they could not solicit donations. The only viable option was to spin the clinic off as a nonprofit that would maintain a relationship with the Health Department and Carroll Hospital Center."

Access Carroll already has several thousand dollars in donations, Wack said.

As a nonprofit, unaffiliated with any government agency, the clinic can solicit funding and apply for grants.

It will need an estimated $80,000 for initial operating costs, including $3,000 a month for rent and utilities, Wack said.

"We can raise that," Wack said. "The hospital just raised $10 million."

The Community Foundation of Carroll County, which helps solicit and distribute charitable contributions, expects to launch a campaign soon to raise a year's worth of rent, said Audrey S. Cimino, executive director.

"This is not just a poor-person issue," Cimino said. "A lot of new jobs have no health benefits. All the community is coming together with donations."

Wack said he and other volunteer physicians and nurses will provide much of the care to as many as 2,000 patients in the first year of operations.

Leitch said he would assign a registered nurse and a nurse practitioner to Access Carroll full time. The Health Department's small clinic will close when the new one opens, he said.

"We had been looking for ways to expand our small clinic to care for more people and offer more services," Leitch said. "We could offer only very basic primary care. The county needs a much bigger operation that would get more doctors involved. This clinic can do so much more and serve so many more."

The downtown location, at 2 Locust Lane, is both convenient and accessible, Cimino said.

"People can walk there," Cimino said. "We will be good neighbors to the business community."

The business community is supporting the effort with donations of equipment and manpower, Wack said.

Two homebuilders have offered assistance with designing the clinic and adding partitions.

Carroll Hospital Center is donating computers and telephones. And, there are already plans to expand.

"We will be offering primary care at first, but hopefully soon we will add volunteer dentists and other services," Cimino said. "Our short-term goal is to open the door. Long-term, we want to make referrals to surgeons and other specialists."

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