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Free health clinic returns to Vergennes

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By JOHN FLOWERS

VERGENNES — A nonprofit agency and a city physicians’ office will soon team up to restore free health care services to those with little or no coverage.

The Vergennes Open Door Clinic will offer medical services to needy residents every other Thursday, from 6 to 9 p.m., beginning Oct. 23, at the Little City Family Practice at 10 North St. Community Health Services of Addison County (CHSAC) is spearheading the clinic, with the help and cooperation of Dr. Tim Bicknell of the Little City Family Practice.

Ken Dabbs, executive director of CHSAC, said the new clinic is being offered in response to inquiries from an increasing number of area residents who are finding themselves with inadequate health care coverage. Those people used to be able to get basic health care services at an open door clinic CHSAC briefly established at the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes. That clinic closed last year after a brief run, however, when funding dried up.

“While the clinic was (at the shelter) it had a pretty high utilization rate by patients of the Vergennes area,” Dabbs said, noting 166 patients were served by volunteer health care professionals at the shelter-based  facility in 2006.

“When the Vergennes clinic ceased to exist, patients had to travel to Middlebury,” Dabbs said, alluding to the Middlebury Open Door Clinic located in Suite 2 of the Vermont Sun Fitness Center building at 812 Exchange St. The Middlebury clinic has received around 600 client visits thus far in 2008, a figure that is “way up” compared to the same period last year, according to Dabbs.

“I think the current economic issues are magnifying this problem,” Dabbs said.

Recent months have seen more and more people ask whether the Vergennes clinic could be resurrected, according to Dabbs. CHSAC was able to honor that request after the organization’s medical director, Dr. Scott Smith, asked Bicknell whether the Little City Family Practice could host.

“It was something we were very open to,” Bicknell said. “We worked out some administrative details and we’re going to be ready to go.”

Like its Middlebury cousin, the Vergennes Open Door Clinic will benefit from the services of 70 volunteers, including 13 physicians, 15 registered nurses, two physical therapists, one chiropractor, one dietician and one mental health counselor. Porter Medical Center will donate a lot of laboratory and diagnostic equipment to the clinic. The Little City Family Practice is providing the space for free. One part-time, paid person will help manage the clinic operation.

Available services include care of chronic conditions, physical exams, labs, X-rays and other diagnostic tests, physical therapy, chiropractic care, some immunizations, anonymous HIV counseling and testing, referrals to specialists when appropriate, medication assistance, and women’s health care.

Dabbs is optimistic the Vergennes clinic will be on firmer financial footing than its predecessor at the shelter. The United Way of Addison County recently awarded a grant to the venture, which Dabbs estimates will cost around $26,000 per year to operate.

“I think that the community as a whole in Addison County has come together around this program, because they do see we are getting out more and have a higher visibility,” Dabbs said. “Donations have gone up this year.”

The Open Door Clinic will serve people earning as much as 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline. That’s up to $63,000 annually for a family of four. While that may sound like a decent household income, Dabbs noted that some middle-income people are at risk of taking a major financial hit for health care if they have high-deductible policies. He noted farmers — of which there are many in Addison County — often fall into that category.

“They may be insured, but they may have to pay the first $5,000, $10,000 or $20,000 in expenses,” Dabbs said. “We would see those folks.”

Migrant farm laborers are also expected to be among clients of the new venture.

Clinic officials will assist people in applying for state or federal health care subsidy programs, if they so qualify.

Bicknell, who volunteered at the previous Vergennes clinic at the John Graham shelter, is pleased to see service restored for needy clients.

“We’re really glad to see it come back (to Vergennes),” Bicknell said. “Our whole office has always had a philosophy of being an open practice. We’ve never closed our doors and we see everybody regardless of income, and I think that was one reason we were kind of doing our own open door clinic here. But to be able to use the (CHSAC) staff and use their connections — particularly with the outreach to immigrant population — I think we will serve our community very well.”

Heidi Prime, manager of the Little City Family Practice, agreed.

“I personally hate to see anyone neglect their health for lack of funds,” Prime said. “I think there’s a real need. We have a great relationship and I think it’ll be great.”

The Vergennes clinic could ramp up hours in the future if demand exceeds the initial every-other-Thursday schedule.

“As long as there is a need, we are committed to meeting that need,” Dabbs said.

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