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Cleveland volunteers renovate building for free clinic

POSTED: November 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.
SCOTT ROGERS/The Times

Nancy Dutter volunteers her painting services to help get the new White County free clinic ready for business.

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For months, a storefront on Cleveland’s downtown square has had its doors painted with the message, "Coming soon: White County free clinic."

As time went by and nothing happened, residents began to wonder if it was an empty promise. But now, the Caring Hands Health Clinic is on its way to becoming a reality.

Volunteers spent last week working on the interior of the 2,500-square-foot space, trying to get it finished in time for a scheduled open house on Dec. 2.

"We’re getting paint on the walls and tile on the floors," said Hoyt Oliver, a member of the clinic’s board of directors.

Oliver said after years of planning, he’s impatient to get the clinic open so it can start serving the community. "We’ve been working on this for quite some time now," he said.

Though no formal assessment has been done, local officials believe a substantial percentage of White County’s residents have no health insurance. For many people, their main access to health care is through hospital emergency departments, and even that avenue is difficult because White County has no hospital.

"Transportation is a huge issue with this population," said Joan Miller, director of the Caring Hands Health Clinic.

The new clinic will be centrally located in downtown Cleveland, just west of the historic courthouse. Retired pharmacist Ray Black donated space in the building that formerly housed the Cleveland Drug Company. The other half of the building is occupied by Lanier Therapy in Motion, a physical therapy practice.

Oliver said most of the labor and materials for the renovation were donated. "We’ve had to go through building inspections and redo the wiring," he said. "That’s been slow, using volunteers."

When completed, the clinic will have several exam rooms, a waiting area, office, basic laboratory, pharmacy, and patient education room.

But even though the clinic has a home, finding people to staff it has been a challenge. Like most free clinics, Caring Hands will rely on local doctors, nurses and other professionals to donate their time.

That’s how it works at Good News Clinics in Gainesville, widely considered to be one of the best free clinics in Georgia.

But Good News is fortunate to be located in the same city as the region’s largest hospital, Northeast Georgia Medical Center. With hundreds of doctors on its staff and thousands of employees, the medical center provides a deep pool of potential volunteers to draw from.

Because of that advantage, Good News is open every weekday, all day. But the White County clinic will be severely constrained by its struggle to attract physicians.

"I know of only about 12 doctors in White County, and not all are working full-time," said Joan Miller. "So far, we have (signed up) seven doctors, two of whom are retired, and two nurse practitioners. But I think they (each) prefer to work only one night a month."

The northern part of White County is a popular retirement spot for affluent professionals. Miller suspects there may be a number of retired physicians in the area, but she doesn’t know how to reach them.

She’s not optimistic about drawing doctors from outside White County, either, since most of the adjacent counties already have their own free clinics.

"I don’t want to poach doctors from them," she said.

Tonight, the clinic’s board will hold a meeting for anyone interested in volunteering. They’re seeking not just doctors and nurses but also people who can serve in other positions, such as clerical work.

The meeting is at 6 p.m. tonight at Cleveland United Methodist Church, on Ga. 115 east of the square.

The public open house is scheduled for 5 to 8 p.m. next Tuesday, Dec. 2, at the clinic.

Miller said she doesn’t know how soon the clinic will be able to start seeing patients on a regular basis, but she hopes it will happen before January. "It does hinge on the practitioners," she said.

Oliver said the initial goal is to have the clinic operate one night per week, for about three hours.

"We’re going to start small," he said.

Patients will be seen by appointment only. To qualify for services, they can’t have an income higher than 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

"The clinic will serve people who are not eligible for any government subsidy but don’t earn enough to afford health insurance," said Oliver.

Cheryl Christian, executive director of Good News Clinics, said the White County group should expect a high demand for services.

"I think they’re probably going to be overwhelmed with requests for assistance," she said. "We’re seeing (at Good News) so many new patients come in because of the economy."

Christian has been working with the Caring Hands board to help them launch their clinic. "They’ve got a committed group of people, but they need the entire community’s support," she said.

Noting that Good News didn’t have many resources when it started its clinic back in 1993, Christian said it’s OK if the White County clinic is only open for a few hours each week.

"It’s better to be open on a small scale than not to open at all," she said. "You have to get started if you’re going to make a difference."



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