JOLIET – Despite the advent of the Affordable Care Act earlier this year, Will-Grundy Medical Clinic Executive Director Shawn West believes there's still a need for a free care clinic in the area.
Even with Obamacare, many fixed-income families will find premiums and out-of-pocket expenses unaffordable, she said.
“We are a safety net provider for health care,” West said. “We have some patients that are Medicaid eligible, but they're waiting for their application to be processed, so we still see those patients. Others have been quoted a rate from the marketplace that they can't afford.”
Many patients served through the clinic sometimes wait for months at a time for dental and medical care. That list will only grow if health care volunteers don't step up, West said.
The clinic remains entirely dependent on a strong volunteer base, she said, though the numbers have declined over the years.
“We want to serve even more patients,” said West, who stepped into the new leadership role in December, replacing longtime executive director J.D. Ross. “The dental wait-list is significant. People are waiting months to get in for dental.”
That's even with the decline in patient visits since open enrollment in Obamacare started earlier this year. The clinic saw about 570 patients – including those needing prescriptions – in July 2013. A year later, that number had dropped to 450.
More patients could be served if more volunteers, including physicians, nurses and office staff, would give of their time, West said.
Founded in 1988, Will-Grundy Medical Clinic is the only free clinic in Will and Grundy counties for people without health insurance and limited financial resources. Individuals who want to become patients must meet eligibility requirements and must apply for patient status.
Lowering ER visits, hospital re-admissions
The clinic is funded by the United Ways in both counties, Morris Hospital & Healthcare Centers, Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center, Silver Cross Hospital and Adventist Bolingbrook Hospital.
The Will-Grundy Medical Clinic serves patients who otherwise would “fall through the cracks," said Janet Long, spokeswoman for Morris Hospital & Healthcare Centers.
"Will-Grundy Medical Clinic helps fill the gap for those without coverage," Long said. "We recognize the clinic for what they do for this community. The clinic is completely aligned with our own mission – that is, to improve health of area residents. And they do that regardless of a patient's ability to pay."
From December until July, the clinic experienced a decline in patients served, but – unlike other free health care clinics nationwide that are closing their doors with the advent of Obamacare – Will-Grundy Medical Clinic is in it for the long haul, West said.
The clinic's success helps reduce emergency room visits and re-admissions to hospitals, according to Beth Hughes, president and CEO for Presence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Joliet.
Without a medical home, patients often use the ER for non-urgent primary care, which is the most costly way to care for a patient, Hughes said.
“Regardless of health reform, we're still seeing a great deal of patients who are under-insured or uninsured coming into the ER,” Hughes said. “The free clinic serves as a safety net. We want to serve far more patients at the clinic far more than we have historically. To do that, we need more people to volunteer.”
The high rate of hospital re-admissions is also a concern, not only in Illinois, but nationwide, Hughes said. Medicare has started penalizing hospitals for readmitting too many patients as part of a reduction program mandated by the Affordable Care Act.
The Will-Grundy Medical Clinic is unique in that it can provide continued, consistent care for patients with a high risk for re-admittance, she said.
“If a patient doesn't have a home and no one watching their medical condition after discharge, they have a higher likelihood of returning back to the hospital within that 30-day window, but if we're able to properly discharge a patient to the clinic, we reduce the chances of re-admissions greatly,” West said
This year, clinic officials are focusing on new programs, including Zumba fitness classes, nutrition counseling, and healthy cooking classes, said Kim Kalafut, director of development at the clinic.
Award-winning Chef Peggy Gerdes, from the Autobahn Country Club, offered a cooking demonstration last month at the clinic.
"She showed people healthy alternatives to traditional recipes," Kalafut said. "That's the kind of things we want to bring to patients on a monthly basis. We want people to learn how to cook with more healthy ingredients."
These are services not typically offered through expanded Medicaid programs, but would be free to patients at the clinic, she said.
The University of Illinois Extension is offering its services to the clinic by providing training to volunteer nurses on nutrition counseling, too, West said.
“That's the direction health care is going in,” West said. “Prevention really is key. If you want to impact someone's life, help them develop good eating and exercise habits."
For information about how to become a patient, volunteer or donate, contact the clinic at 815-726-3377 or visit www.willgrundymedicalclinic.org