Two and a half years ago, Health Care Access moved from a mobile home in East Lawrence to a 6,000-square-foot building across the street from Lawrence Memorial Hospital’s emergency room at 330 Maine St.
As a result, the clinic is taking care of more patients because of its increased visibility and ability to offer more services. The clinic serves low-income Douglas County residents who do not have insurance.
“We want them to come to us before they have to go across the street and have a great big bill,” said Nikki White, executive director.
Last year, the clinic had 6,937 patient visits, up 116 percent from 2010. The clinic is on pace to have 10,795 visits this year.
Lawrence resident Christina Johnson, 42, has been using Health Care Access for about eight years. She said she has suffered a lot of illnesses including a heart attack.
“I just think they are awesome. If it wasn’t for them, I probably would have died,” she said.
She recently made an appointment because she had numbness and tingling in her arms and she had lost vision in her left eye and a little bit her right eye. Dr. Paul Morte, a retired Lawrence neurologist who volunteers every Monday morning at the clinic, diagnosed Johnson with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.
“It kind of hit me in the face all at once. They diagnosed it really quick,” she said.
Morte said her prognosis would be a lot worse if she had delayed seeking treatment.
“Multiple sclerosis is not the terrible disease that it was at one time,” Morte said. “My guess is that it’s about half as bad as it used to be with medications and they should be started early.”
Johnson’s grateful to be able to access a neurologist’s services and the medications that she needs for free.
Besides medical care, Health Care Access has added legal services, counseling for mental health issues, wellness activities, and referrals to other free or low-cost services in town. It’s added so many services that it recently started leasing space in the Medical Arts Building next door for the clinic’s administrators and interns.
White said the clinic’s goal is to provide a medical home that serves all of its patients’ needs.
In February, the clinic hired Ann Lopez, a licensed social worker, to oversee its counseling services and to serve as a patient navigator. That means if a patient needs more than medical help she visits with them and refers them to the appropriate resources whether it’s for suicide prevention, substance abuse, domestic violence, stress management or assistance with food, utilities or rent. Then, she checks to make sure they followed through with getting assistance.
“She handles things from ‘I am not handling my teenager well’ to ‘I want to kill myself’ to ‘I tried to kill myself this morning and I didn’t succeed.’ She comes in on those and has just been amazing,” said Kim Johnson, assistant director.
Lopez said she sees a patient who is in crisis at least once a day, if not five.
“I do think that it’s really, really tough for our patients and by in large, there’s a lot of shame. People don’t want to seek medical services because of the fact that they’ve let this or that get out of control. I also think that people are scared about what they are going to find out,” Lopez said.
She said while most people can take an ibuprofen for a headache and not think twice about it, patients at Health Care Access often don’t have money for a bus ride to the clinic let alone an extra $5 for an over-the-counter pain reliever and so they go without. She said some diabetic patients don’t have electricity or a refrigerator to keep their insulin in and so they don’t take it.
“These patients are facing hardship. It’s really, really tough,” she reiterated.
To qualify for services at Health Care Access, a patient’s gross income must be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s $20,146 for an individual or $41,347 for a family of four.
“We have a good staff here and that, I believe, makes the patients feel at home, which is a big deal,” Lopez said.
That familiarity is what the staff believes helps patients push past the stigma of mental health disorders and seek help. Last year, the clinic provided 315 counseling appointments, up 178 percent from 2010. This year, it’s on pace to provide 980 appointments.
“It’s wonderful that we can now address that and relieve the nurse’s schedule,” White said. She said appointments can be twice as long when nurses have to take care of other needs besides medical.
There’s also been a huge push for patients to be proactive about their health and seek preventive services, such as an annual exam and blood glucose screenings, rather than waiting until there’s a crisis. Additionally, Health Care Access offers wellness activities such as walking programs, cooking classes and trips to the grocery store to point out low-cost, nutritious foods.
“We just want everyone to be healthier and happier,” Johnson said.
The Douglas County Medical Alliance’s seventh annual fashion show will be Thursday, Sept. 6, at Van Go Inc., 715 N.J. Here are the details:
• 5:30 p.m. — Cocktails and shopping.
• 6 p.m. — Fashion show, featuring some local doctors as models.
• Cost — $30. Tickets can be purchased at the door or in advance by visiting dcmaks.org.
• Discounts — Ticket holders will get a 20 percent discount at about two dozen Lawrence restaurants and stores between Sept. 6 and Sept. 9. For the list, visit www.dcmaks.org.