New director, new digs at WTFC

Published 9:18 am Saturday, September 12, 2009

SUFFOLK—It’s a big month for the Western Tidewater Free Clinic.

With a new executive director to lead the way, the organization is preparing to take a huge step into new quarters on Meade Parkway, at the entrance to the Lakeview Medical Center complex.

For more than 1,150 patients and more than 180 volunteers, moving from the cramped Godwin Boulevard quarters the clinic has occupied since its inception will be a welcome relief.

Perhaps even more important is the expectation WTFC officials have that the new space — four times bigger than its current building — will allow them to offer their free health care services to more of the 450 or so people currently on the waiting list for help.

Whereas the patient load used to be primarily a function of the space available within the clinic, Executive Director Doris Salem said on Thursday, with the opening of the renovated space on Mead Parkway, taking on new patients can happen as soon as the medical volunteers are found to provide the services those patients need.

“Our goal is we would really like to run the clinic five days a week,” Salem said as she conducted a tour of the facility, which is being renovated from its former use as a Virginia Employment Commission office.

With as many of 60 new patients a month — and with the area’s economic situation resulting in a growing number of people without health insurance — there’s little doubt that the clinic could find the clients to fill whatever time is allotted to patient care.

The clinic serves people in Suffolk, Franklin, Isle of Wight and Southampton. Eligible patients must live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and have no health insurance.

Stephie Broadwater, who volunteers as the clinic’s media relations manager, said Virginia’s comparatively low Medicare eligibility cap means that a lot of people with jobs that don’t pay enough to help them afford health insurance still make too much money to qualify for Medicare.

In fact, she said, about 45 percent of the clinic’s patients work full time or part time, and many have more than one job. Even a new federal health care system would be unlikely to change things radically, the women said.

“People are always going to fall through the cracks,” Salem explained. “People are always going to be challenged. There’s always going to be a need to see people at this clinic.”

And with the new building, which the WTFC was able to purchase with the help of a private donation that Salem hopes to make public later this month, those patients can expect more privacy, a more comfortable environment and more services.

There are six patient rooms in the new building, compared to the current facility’s four, and there is a new special treatment room for specialized procedures. There also is a dedicated, onsite, certified laboratory, a large pharmacy dispensary, an area for secured medical records, counseling rooms for medical patients with emotional issues, a large classroom for counseling patient groups, a breakroom for staff and volunteers and office space for various WTFC officials.

On Thursday, though, Salem and Broadwater seemed most excited about the dental suite, which they expect to open in November. There will be two dental chairs available, along with on-site X-rays.

“We know how desperately our patients need dental care,” Broadwater said, noting that a mobile dental clinic at the current WTFC site in May brought in 108 patients who were seen over the span of just two days.

“And that 108 really just scratched the surface,” Salem added.

Still, she said, the clinic’s board of directors never would have considered moving from its current location so soon after it opened if the building’s owner hadn’t told them of his plans to sell it, leaving the clinic in need of a new location.

“We would never, in our first year of operation, have thought of taking on this kind of challenge,” she said.

Nonetheless, as they prepare for a public open house Oct. 1, they are very satisfied with the situation. The new facility is large, has plenty of parking, is on the bus route and required a simple build-out. Not to mention the fact that officials expect to come pretty close to breaking even on their monthly facility costs.

The public open house will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Oct. 1, and the clinic will be open for patient follow-ups the following day. For more information, visit