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Nov. 30, 2022

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Free Clinic of Southwest Washington provides primary health care for Clark County’s uninsured

Free clinic pivots to routine medical checkups after focus on urgent care

By , Columbian staff reporter
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Lea Gutierrez, clinic supervisor, at right, and Deb Brown, physician assistant, discuss a patient's case on Sept. 28 at the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington. The clinic, on Plomondon Road, offers free health care for those without insurance and advocacy for those with limited English language skills.
Lea Gutierrez, clinic supervisor, at right, and Deb Brown, physician assistant, discuss a patient's case on Sept. 28 at the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington. The clinic, on Plomondon Road, offers free health care for those without insurance and advocacy for those with limited English language skills. (James Rexroad for The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington ran as a walk-in urgent care, providing basic health care needs for uninsured and underinsured Clark County residents. Now, it operates on an appointment-based system, serving as more of a primary care facility where patients can come for repeat, routine care.

“It’s important for people to know that we can be their primary care homes. If you don’t have insurance, that doesn’t mean that you can’t come get your annual checkup, that you can’t talk about chronic disease management,” said Rebecca O’Brien, executive director at the Free Clinic. “We’re in the capacity where we can help you with your long-term health goals.”

The clinic also recently transitioned to its first electronic health record system, which aids in providing continuity of care so patients can see the same provider months later.

To provide free, high-quality care, the Free Clinic relies on donations from the community. During the Give More 24! fundraising campaign on Sept. 22, 107 donors helped raise more than $140,000. This winter, the nonprofit hopes to raise even more.

The Free Clinic’s annual Holiday Ball is coming up — its largest fundraiser of the year. The goal is to raise $200,000, with all proceeds going toward providing free health care for the uninsured, according to Pam Knepper, communications, development and outreach manager at the clinic.

The evening features a sit-down dinner, dessert dash and auction in support of the Free Clinic. The event takes place at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 3. Tickets are on sale now for $150 each or $1,200 for a table of eight.

“Our mission is to provide and facilitate access to free, high quality, compassionate health care for individuals who would otherwise be unable to attain those services,” O’Brien said. “In a nutshell, we’re providing free care for the uninsured. Our health care system is very complex, it’s hard to navigate even if you have insurance. And if you don’t have insurance, your options are incredibly limited.”

The clinic has six exam rooms where volunteer physicians and providers give basic medical care for issues including infections, hypertension, diabetes, injury and vision care. For those in need of specialty care, such as for cancer, the Free Clinic can refer them to Project Access. The program, staffed by the Free Clinic, provides access to specialty care for low-income, uninsured residents of Clark County.

The Free Clinic serves patients 18 and older. On average, there are 265 appointments a month, around 4,000 a year, according to O’Brien. Most of those appointments are for people who are uninsured and otherwise would not have access to health care.

“Cost is a huge factor in people’s overall well-being,” O’Brien said. “If you’re having to decide between whether you can pay rent or whether you can address your health needs, a lot of people are going to choose rent and food.”

The Free Clinic is run by 12 staff members and about 200 volunteers. Of those volunteers, about 30 of them are physicians or providers, many of them are retired from regular clinical care but still want to use their skills to help care for the community, O’Brien said.

Many of the providers offer routine family practice care, though the clinic also has several specialists, including a cardiologist, endocrinologist and neurologist, among a few others. The clinic also hosts a mobile dental van two to three times a month, according to O’Brien, providing urgent care, such as extractions and fillings.

The other volunteers serve mostly as clinical assistants and interpreters. Though all of the staff members speak Spanish, as much of the population the Free Clinic serves is Spanish speaking, not all of the providers do. And some patients speak languages other than English or Spanish. The interpreters serve to help communicate with patients speaking any language.

“Our first priority is always making sure that the patient is comfortable and understands what’s going on for their medical visit. And they walk away from here with a good understanding of what their health goals are, how we can help them achieve that and what they need to do on their end,” O’Brien said. “And that usually means conducting those visits in the language that they speak.”

Linda Buckley began volunteering at the Free Clinic in 2018, providing behavioral health care in both English and Spanish. Buckley sees about three patients, once a week, who are referred to her from medical providers. In the therapy sessions, she helps patients who are struggling with depression, anxiety and trauma. Currently, Buckley is the only mental health services provider at the clinic, though she hopes to recruit more providers to volunteer.

“There’s a lot of (post-traumatic stress disorder), and most people haven’t ever been in therapy before. So I try to normalize it,” Buckley said. “Being that listening ear, an empathetic person that can hear about trauma that happened in childhood that a patient never talked about, and then to try to provide healing for that — that’s very rewarding.”

The Free Clinic is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday by appointment only. For more information on how to access services or volunteer, visit freeclinics.org or call 360-450-3044.

For more information about the Holiday Ball fundraiser and where to buy tickets, visit freeclinics.org, email pam@freeclinics.org or call 360-450-3044 ext. 101.

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