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Free clinics in Clark County expect rise in patients

Ever since the novel coronavirus pandemic began, Clark County’s three free clinics have had serious concerns for their patients.

The free clinics, which see thousands of patients every year, support some of the most medically and financially vulnerable people in Clark County. In turn, these patients are also some of the most at-risk people for contracting COVID-19, and also experiencing severe complications from it.

Many patients who visit the clinics have diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease and other respiratory or chronic problems.

“We’re really concerned that those folks stay home and are protected,” said Ann Wheelock, the executive director of the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington in Vancouver.

Free clinics in Clark County, which also include Battle Ground HealthCare and New Heights Clinic in Vancouver, have offered virtual visits through most of the pandemic.

Virtual visits kept patients and staff safe. Many of the clinics’ volunteers, including doctors and dentists, are older, and also more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“It’s keeping people stable until we can see them again,” said Diane Dunlap, clinic manager at New Heights, which is operated by New Heights Church.

Once clinics begin to offer in-person care again, Wheelock, Dunlap and Sue Neal, executive director at Battle Ground HealthCare, are concerned about serving a rush of patients. A wave of demand will be difficult for free clinics to navigate, because they typically rely on volunteer doctors and dentists, as well as donations, grants and fundraisers.

As unemployment continues to increase, people are losing jobs and health insurance. According to U.S. Census data, about 7 percent of Clark County residents were uninsured before the pandemic.

Government aid has helped fill health insurance gaps for the time being, but it’s likely that eventually there will be a uptick in uninsured people in Clark County. Battle Ground HealthCare will have a soft reopening of its in-person services beginning in June.

Neal said she’s already started to notice that some patient’s health deteriorated in the last 10 weeks.

“As time goes on, and people in the community have lost their jobs, I am worried about the long term,” Neal said. “I’m concerned about what the funding situation is going to look like.”

Free clinics don’t receive direct federal or state funding. Neal said her clinic has been looking into creative ways to raise money.

Christine Lindquist, the executive director of the Washington Healthcare Access Alliance, which oversees 77 freestanding free clinics, said that there’s no federal funds earmarked specifically for free clinics at the moment, but Battle Ground HealthCare and the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington have received some Paycheck Protection Program funds.

It has been challenging at times for free clinics to procure loans from the program.

“The money we are spending now is money we brought in nine months ago,” Lindquist said. “It’s a concern.”

Battle Ground HealthCare has a big fundraiser scheduled for October, and Neal is not sure whether that can still happen as scheduled. The clinic is considering alternatives to an in-person fundraiser, in case that’s necessary.

“We’re looking at different avenues to be able to provide our services,” Neal said. “We have no idea what the future will look like.”



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