VAFCC Opinion: Clinics Care for VA
Last year, the staff at the St. Luke Community Clinic in Front Royal shared a handwritten note with us from a patient expressing her gratitude for the dignified healthcare services she had received. In the note, this patient described how conflicted she initially felt with feelings of shame arising from her need for care. However, upon summoning the courage to enter – on her fourth visit as she had not made it further than the clinic's steps on three separate occasions – she was immediately welcomed, provided the medical attention she required, and was never made to feel less for needing help.
It is unthinkable that so many Virginians neglect their health because they lack health insurance, yet this story is not uncommon. Many of us may not recognize how intimidating it can be to venture into this unfamiliar arena fraught with so many uncertainties: without health insurance, where can I access care? What kind of care will I receive? How will I pay for it? Will I get better?
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has created even more risk and uncertainty for vulnerable Virginians. Thankfully, though, Virginia's free and charitable clinics have continued to operate during this challenging time, providing over 74,000 individuals with quality care, including COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, regardless of their ability to pay. What's more, the clinics have kept patients with chronic conditions healthy and out of crowded emergency rooms during the worst of the COVID-19 surges -- patients like Sean, a local Albemarle resident who as a truck driver lacked health insurance. After feeling unwell and ignoring symptoms for several months during the pandemic, his wife urged him to seek care at the Charlottesville Free Clinic. While there, he was diagnosed with diabetes and had dangerously high blood sugar levels. The clinic then provided Sean with the medications he needed and helped him changed his eating habits. As a result, his blood sugar level was dramatically reduced. “I was given the education and support I needed to change my life and I couldn't be more grateful,” he shared.
Now, however, free and charitable clinics are facing significant challenges in sustaining their efforts to provide a range of essential health care and social determinant services to patients like Sean while also continuing to protect and treat at-risk populations throughout the state against more transmissible COVID variants such as Delta and Omicron. Unbudgeted operating costs are mounting as clinics contend with pent-up patient demand for care, including a spike in behavioral health needs, on top of the additional staff time and resources already being devoted towards COVID testing and vaccination efforts. This growing operational and financial pressure is compounded by a shortage in volunteer providers, which has forced clinics to hire more paid providers, and a decrease in clinic fundraising due to donor fatigue as the pandemic nears two years. Moreover, clinics are burdened with ongoing expenses associated with investments in solutions designed to enhance safety and access to care during the COVD-19 crisis, such as telemedicine, remote monitoring, mobile health units, and home delivery of prescriptions.
In order for free and charitable clinics to overcome these challenges and sustain their vital safety-net services, additional funding is critically needed. Ensuring that thousands of at-risk Virginians have access to essential care requires a commitment that goes well beyond the walls of the clinics. Therefore, it is vital that Governor Northam's proposed budget which includes funding for Virginia's free and charitable clinics, be passed by the General Assembly during its upcoming session.