Free county health care clinic gets a new leader

MIDDLEBURY — The Open Door Clinic has opened its doors to a new executive director — Heidi Sulis, who takes the helm of the county’s free medical center during a period of unprecedented growth.

Sulis takes over for former Director Julie Arel, who recently stepped down to become director of New England Rural Health Roundtable, a nonprofit that among other things identifies, researches and advocates for rural health issues.

“I’m glad I made the decision and took the risk,” Sulis said of the 30-hour-per-week job, which she officially started in February.

“It really feels right.”

And it’s a job that Sulis was able to step into seamlessly, for a variety of reasons. She had spent a combined total of five years as an Open Door Clinic volunteer and board member, so she already knew the many health care workers, helpers and patients that have been the lifeblood of the service, located at 100 Porter Drive.

It also didn’t hurt that she came to the job with more than two decades of experience working in various roles with Porter Medical Center. Most of that experience (21 years) was as manager of Porter’s Community Health Outreach programs, delivering pre-natal classes, smoking cessation classes, Lifeline and other services to the public. She most recently provided administrative support for Bristol Internal Medicine.

As Arel was finishing up her work with the clinic, she encouraged Sulis to apply for the job. Sulis was intrigued, but was unsure whether her skill-set was a good match for the post. But she saw some of the applicants’ resumes and determined her own qualifications were suitable. She threw her hat into the ring, scored an interview and landed the job, which she has quickly embraced. Her desk on Thursday was topped with a volume of paperwork to which she must attend, including grant writing. The Open Door Clinic is heavily dependent on grants, donations and state/federal funds to cobble together its roughly $255,000 annual budget.

“It’s such an easy mission to embrace,” Sulis said of her work at the clinic. “Helping an organization serve the underinsured and uninsured felt very much like my makeup. I do feel that everyone should be covered for health care.”

The Open Door Clinic is one of 10 free clinics in Vermont, Sulis noted. Eligible patients cannot earn more than 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline ($70,650 for a household of four). Patients must make an appointment (388-0137) to come in for services that include acute and chronic care, routine physical exams, mental health counseling, physical therapy, prescription assistance, lab and blood work, anonymous HIV testing and counseling, and help in enrolling in a variety of state health care programs that might fit their needs.

Care is extended for free, though donations are appreciated. Delivering that care is a paid staff of five full- and part-time health care professionals who work with a network of more than 130 volunteers, including 16 physicians, four nurse practitioners, 15 registered nurses, three physical therapists, five emergency medical technicians, a dietician and a pharmacist. Other volunteers staff the clinic’s intake desk, assist patients with insurance applications, provide translator services and help with transportation.

Demand continues to grow for the clinic’s services, Sulis noted.

The Open Door Clinic received 1,133 visits for service in 2012, up almost 21 percent from the 937 visits recorded in 2011, according to Sulis.

Approximately 75 percent of those requesting service are working people, and around 30 percent are migrant farm workers — many of whom speak Spanish and need translation help.

“We are seeing more and more patients with limited English proficiency,” Sulis said.

The Open Door Clinic is open in Middlebury on Tuesday evenings from 6 to 9 p.m. as well as one Friday per month, from 9 a.m. to noon. A clinic operating out of the Little City Family Practice at 10 North St. in Vergennes is open two Thursday evenings a month. Additionally the organization conducts outreach clinics at various churches, farms and other community settings throughout the year. More information about the Middlebury clinic, as well as the one in Vergennes, can be found at www.opendoormidd.org.

Patients will continue to find great care, according to Sulis.

“The staff is wonderful, dedicated and committed, as are the volunteers,” Sulis said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.


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Addison County Independent