DAHLONEGA — For more than 3,000 uninsured patients each year, the Appalachian Nurse Practitioner Clinic is a lifeline.
Yet as vital as the service is to some residents, its future is uncertain in the wake of the University System of Georgia’s recent announcement of millions in proposed budget cuts.
“We see around 300 patients each month — we have more than 1,000 patients in our database,” said Grace Newsome, a nurse practitioner and project director. “Many of our patients are the working poor, but we do have a certain subset of indigent patients also. Most have chronic illnesses like diabetes and hypertension.”
Newsome’s patients are the ones who can’t afford to get their medicine unless it’s free through the clinic’s prescription assistance program or one of the discounted $4 prescriptions available at some area pharmacies.
Knowing how difficult it is for low-income patients to get access to quality, affordable primary health care, Newsome applied for a grant in 2006 to open a clinic on the campus of North Georgia College & State University in Dahlonega. Her application for a $1.33 million grant, to be spread over a five-year period, was approved and the clinic opened in January 2007.
Now not only are staff treating patients in the clinic for 40 hours each week, they also work at satellite locations in Dawson and White counties.
Although the clinic doesn’t receive university funding, it is run by the school’s Master of Science nursing programs, Newsome said.
And those programs — Master of Science in nursing education and Master of Science in family nurse practitioner — are on the chopping block.
It is estimated that cutting the programs would save North Georgia around $560,000, but clinic staff say the cost of the clinic having to possibly shut its doors is even greater and the effects are far-reaching.
“If this clinic has to close, a lot of our patients will have nowhere else to go,” Newsome said.
For patients who receive free or reduced-cost medication like insulin from the clinic, the facility being open could be a life or death issue.
The proposed graduate program cuts also could affect enrollment.
“I have been getting phone calls (from graduate applicants) asking if we will still have a program,” said Toni Barnett, head of the Master of Science nursing department.
“And the (undergraduate nursing) students are upset because they were planning to enroll in the (graduate program).”
Since a final decree hasn’t been given about the proposed cuts, Barnett said they have been told to proceed as usual admitting students into both graduate and undergraduate programs.
When asked by the Board of Regents to determine how they could potentially reduce their budget, North Georgia staff say they weren’t given much time to decide.
“Schools were only given a couple of days to pull their proposals together. We weren’t given a lot of time for a thorough evaluation of what would need to be cut. This was just a first attempt to determine how we would approach (possible budget cuts) ,” said Kate Maine, director of communication for the university.
“We won’t know (if cuts are necessary) until the legislature determines a final state budget, and then at that point the Board of Regents will determine how much state funding each school will get.”
In addition to the graduate nursing programs, school administrators also proposed reducing library resources, staff support services and eliminating 20 percent of the school’s courses.
“Given the magnitude of budget cuts, we really had to look at deep programmatic cuts,” Maine said. “We were far beyond being able to make across-the-board cuts; we’ve already made cuts to operating costs, faculty travel and supplies and implemented a hiring freeze.
“Unfortunately, as we try to focus on our academic mission, some programs that serve the community had to fall by the wayside. (The clinic) means so much to the students and to this community and we definitely hope that it survives.”