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Rock River Free Clinic provides essential healthcare to those in need

Monday, January 9, 2012

True to its mission, the Rock River Free clinic provides access to free health services for income and uninsured individuals. And, in these days of economic hardship, the number of persons who suddenly find themselves without health insurance is growing steadily.

According to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF), the rate of unemployment in Jefferson County rose from 3.9 percent in 2008 to 9.5 percent in 2009. That means that about 2,500 more county residents were out of work in 2009 than in 2008. As a result of the recession, the total poverty rate in Jefferson County increased from 6.0 percent in 2008 to 11.5 percent in 2009.
Loss of a job is the most common reason people find themselves without health insurance, and they make up part of the Free Clinic’s caseload. However, according to the National Association of Free Clinics, approximately 83 percent of free clinic patients come from a working household but cannot afford health insurance. Many are patients working multiple jobs. Because of underemployment, they must choose between the high cost of insurance payments or putting food on the table for their family. Others, who work only part-time or survive on two or more part-time jobs, may not be eligible for any health insurance coverage through their employer.
Health insurance is becoming less available while more people are becoming needy. WCCF reports that the percent of people in Jefferson County with private health insurance decreased from 80.9 percent in 2008 to 76.9 percent in 2009. Furthermore, the child poverty rate in Jefferson County rose from 8.3 percent in 2008 to 13.1 percent in 2009. More than 900 additional children slipped into poverty in Jefferson County between 2008 and 2009.
Patients who are eligible for services at the Rock River Free Clinic are those who are uninsured and have income less than or equal to 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($22,350 per year for a family of four in 2011). Patients are not eligible for services if they have Medicare, Medicaid, Private Insurance or BadgerCare. Increasingly, the dedicated and caring all volunteer health professionals and staff at the Free Clinic offers a safety net that has become an essential component of the regional healthcare system.
It is truly a story of neighbors helping neighbors, hope for the uninsured and volunteerism at its best. Beginning in January, Dr. David Rutledge, a family practice physician with Fort HealthCare, will provide nearly full-time coverage at the Rock River Free Clinic. He will be joined by a full-time licensed practical nurse employed by the Jefferson County Health Department. The nurse will perform clinical duties and provide daily scheduling assistance. This new level of medical professional staffing will allow the clinic to be open four and one half days per week. Currently, the clinic is open only on Thursday evenings.
New hours have been established for the clinic as the new providers begin offering care. Tentative hours are:
Monday                10 am     –    7 pm
Tuesday                 9 am     –    Noon
Wednesday            9 am     –    6 pm
Thursday              10 am     –    7 pm
Friday                    9 am    –     5 pm
The clinic will remain a 501(c) 3 non-profit organization overseen by a Board of Directors. The Board is made up of members from Fort HealthCare, Jefferson County Health Department, nurses, doctors, community organizations and individuals interested in providing care to those in need. The Board will continue to have control over clinic operations.
Free Clinic services include individual assessments, medications, referrals for diagnosis and treatment of serious conditions, lab tests, x-rays, health education, wound care, chronic and acute care, vaccinations, disease screenings, seizure management and more. 
On a recent clinic day the waiting room was crowded and the exam rooms at the clinic’s 1541 Annex Road, Jefferson location were full. Volunteer nurses, doctors and interpreters hustled along the narrow hallways, ducking in and out of rooms. Doctor Donald Bates, a Fort HealthCare family practice physician in Fort Atkinson was seeing a number of patients; one of whom was Margaret. Middle aged and with diabetes, a condition she’s had for six years, Margaret came to the clinic for a medication re-fill. Like many in the area, she is employed in a full-time position, but can’t afford the health insurance offered by her employer. 
David had a successful career in construction until the recession hit the housing industry. Without an income from employment, he can’t afford the premiums for any health insurance; including BadgerCare, the State’s Medicaid plan for the poor, disabled and elderly. He visits the Free Clinic every few months for treatment of asthma and is impressed with the care he receives, relating that the people at the clinic are very decent, caring and concerned. 
Amy is another patient in the clinic this day. She comes once a month for care related to her asthma and high blood pressure. Recently widowed, she lived off her and her husband’s investments and social security. The money didn’t go as far as she expected and she had to go to work. Now, she is working part-time at a large box discount store, hoping to gain full-time employment soon. Then, she’d be eligible for health insurance benefits. Until that happens, she must rely on the Free Clinic as she can’t afford a regular doctor. A prideful person, she heard about the Free Clinic from her friends and was at first embarrassed to come. But, as she reports, everyone at the Free Clinic has been so kind and wonderful.
Volunteers are key to the clinic’s success and ongoing operation. They greet, register and room patients, draw blood in the laboratory, file medical records and serve as interpreters for those whose first language is one other than English. 
Dan Roahen and his wife Carmen translate from English to Spanish and back again. They’ve volunteered at the clinic since 2003. Dan explains that children can’t legally serve as interpreters in medical situations. And, they don’t often know the medical terms and conditions their parents are describing. He is proud of the group of volunteers that serve the clinic and encourages others to make a similar commitment. Roahen is looking forward to Dr. Rutledge’s increased presence at the clinic. “We will be able to serve many more patients. And, with this economy, there are more and more who qualify.”

Volunteer Gail Gromala performs a variety of clerical tasks, including organizing patient medications with the pharmacy. According to her, volunteers are always appreciated as are donations to purchase diabetic supplies, medications and more. Her motivation to be a volunteer is simple. “You get so much out of being here. You get back more than you put in.”

Volunteers will still be needed to assist Dr. Rutledge and the nurse, with more hours available for those who wish to contribute to this important work. Patients are encouraged to call and make an appointment. Walk-ins will still be accommodated as much as possible.
If you wish to volunteer at the Rock River Free Clinic, call 920-674-7442 or e-mail Gail Scott at