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Our State’s Best Kept Secret

Posted On December 31, 2018

S.C. free medical clinics mitigate skyrocketing healthcare costs and save lives

By W. THOMAS SMITH JR.  »  Photos by CHARLIE MULLIKIN

South Carolina’s free medical clinics are not only one of the Palmetto State’s best-kept healthcare and healthy outcome secrets, but the 40 free clinics located throughout 25 counties across S.C. serve upwards of 40,000 uninsured or underinsured individuals and families, statewide, helping keep overall medical costs down, advancing a healthy working population, and literally saving lives. 

Serving approximately 2,000 patients, The Free Medical Clinic located at 1875 Harden Street in Columbia, is no exception. In fact, The Clinic is a model of why free clinics are vital to a community’s well-being.

Why best kept secrets? 

“Because there are far too many people within the Midlands community, for instance, who don’t even know we exist,” says Caryn Little, development director for the Free Medical Clinic, which has been serving patients for nearly 35 years. “We have a very long history with great financial stewardship and great volunteer participation. And in terms of the more than 100,000 people we have served and the approximately $50-million in prescription drugs we have dispensed since we opened our doors, it’s fair to say that few organizations have had the kind of an impact on a community that we have had.” 

Dr. M. Todd Crump, a physician who juggles his time between The Free Medical Clinic and the Emergency Department at Lexington Medical Center, agrees.

“Last year, our pharmacy dispensed over $4.4-million worth of prescription drugs to patients who otherwise would not have had them, yet needed them,” says Crump, who serves as the clinic’s volunteer medical director.

The success stories are numerous. The Clinic’s Hepatitis C specialty clinic, for instance, has cured more than 14 patients of the disease, which could be fatal if left untreated. 

“A three-month treatment for Hepatitis C is around $90,000,” says Crump. “If you contracted Hep C today, your insurance probably wouldn’t cover it. We offer that here. The drug company donates that to us for our patients.” 

Lives have also been saved through “colonoscopies, stroke preventions, and getting patients’ diabetes and hypertension under control,” says Crump. “There are multiple stories like that. People tell us, ‘you saved my life’ or ‘I would not be here were it not for The Free Medical Clinic.’” 

Providing on-site primary and specialty care, the patients at the 7,000 square foot clinic – with its six exam rooms and a full-service pharmacy – are served by approximately 90 volunteer medical professionals, including 36 physicians. 

Like other free clinics across the state, The Free Medical Clinic provides healthcare services to persons who do not have health insurance. “We serve the working poor from across the state. We serve the people who work in restaurants and can’t afford insurance through the exchange and do not qualify for Medicaid” says Little. 

Crump agrees, “Here we are making a difference. We are saving lives. We are promoting healthy outcomes. Most of our patients are working, but they are the working poor and don’t have insurance, Medicaid, or Medicare.” 

Crump adds, “Do we have some homeless people and addicts? Yes. So does every other practice. But our patients are primarily the working poor. We have a stigma that we have to overcome especially when we are competing with other important charities which perhaps tug on people’s heartstrings more than we are able to.”

Raising funds to provide quality medical care is difficult.  “It’s a delicate balance” says Little, “because we are competing with the people and organizations we are also helping and they with us. There is also a misconception that the government heavily subsidizes us. But we receive no federal funding and our state funding is minimal.” 

Freddie Strange, executive director of The Free Medical Clinic, says, “We recognize and appreciate the populations we serve. Our patients have so many needs beyond our scope. They come in with housing needs, transportation needs, nutrition and clothing needs, you name it. So we work with our partner agencies to get them what they need, to get them to the next level of service which may be mental health, alcohol and drug-abuse counseling, and or sexual trauma services.”

Strange adds, “Our nurse practitioners are really good at recognizing patient needs and getting our patients exactly what they need.” 

Virginia Ann Mullikin, director of the S.C. Free Clinic Association (SCFCA), applauds the efforts of free clinics in addressing social determinants of health.  “Our free clinics understand that a patient’s health may be affected by other factors such as housing or lack of nutritious food. Our clinics work tirelessly to address the needs of their patients.” 

Like The Free Medical Clinic in Columbia, the SCFCA’s other 39 free clinics provide needed services to underinsured patients in their respective communities and beyond. In 2017, the SCFCA’s free clinics – all of which are 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations – provided more than 40,000 patients with free healthcare services with an estimated value of more than $100-million. 

An article published earlier this year in MidlandsBiz reported, “more than 114,600 medical visits were provided on-site [at free clinics in S.C.], last year, not including nearly 13,160 on-site dental visits. Behavioral/mental health visits were more than 5,770. More than 32,300 patients received enabling services (non-clinical services such as health education and case management), and nearly 349,000 necessary prescriptions were dispensed. None of this begins to cover expenses associated with operating and administrative costs, much less the 4,183 volunteers providing 258,399 hours-worth of free services.”

Grant funds from supporters like the United Way and BlueCross BlueShield of South Carolina Foundation, supplemented by individual and group donations have historically served as the core component of the free clinics’ annual budgets. Free clinics rely on grant funding, individual and community donations (both monetary and in-kind), and volunteer services to provide free medical services to their patients. 

“Free clinics are able to maximize their resources and provide more than seven-dollars’ worth of services for every one dollar donated,” says Mullikin. “Free clinics are truly a ‘win-win’ for our communities. The provision of healthcare services and prescription medications can improve the health of our patients, reduce ER visits and ultimately result in costs savings for the healthcare system and community.” 

Mullikin adds, “As we enter the Christmas season, we hope that many South Carolinians will be filled with the spirit of giving and share their time, talent or treasure with a free clinic in their area.” www.freemedclinic.org.

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