GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Way Free Medical Clinic still looks like a church. Tiles are arranged in the form of a cross near the entrance. The exam rooms are in the old church break room. The …
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Way Free Medical Clinic still looks like a church. Tiles are arranged in the form of a cross near the entrance. The exam rooms are in the old church break room. The plumbing for baptisms is under the elevated pulpit. Executive Director Don Fann, hired in November 2017 in a time of crisis for the clinic, jokes about installing a hot tub.
The clinic has more than 60 volunteers and licensed physicians, and it also uses residents from hospitals like St. Vincent’s. Free clinics are not allowed to charge patients, according to state statutes. To visit the clinic, patients must be Clay County residents and earn 200 percent or lower below federal poverty guidelines.
“Last year an individual could make $24,000 a year and qualify for free medical care if they didn’t have insurance,” Fann said.
Fann said the clinic serves about 1,000 people a year, a number he wants to increase.
“Within the last two decades, free clinics, particularly in Florida, have emerged as like a primary safety net for people who have absolutely no insurance and low income because they have no other recourse,” Fann said.
The clinic has three exam rooms for patients and cares for more than 100 diabetes cases, in additional to auxiliary vision and behavioral health care. In a partnership with St. Vincent’s, pregnant women get free prenatal care from the hospital’s residents, who work on rotation at the hospital in Jacksonville’s Riverside area. When the women are ready to give birth, they get approved for emergency Medicaid and then are completely covered.
“Until that (process is) imminent, these women can’t get care, but a child makes you eligible,” Fann said. “That’s sort of the path we create.”
Free clinics also reduce emergency room visits for low-income patients for health concerns, such as the common cold. One case of readmission at an emergency room for an uninsured person that could have been prevented is $25,000-$100,000 per case, Fann added.
“You go home (after treatment) but the only recourse is to go back to the hospital,” Fann said.
After the departure of the previous executive director and medical director, Fann said some board members and major funders partnered to hire a consulting firm. He said some feared the clinic would close if it didn’t restructure. The firm recommended a change in leadership and the clinic hired Fann, who had experience turning around nonprofits in New York and New Jersey.
“I would work with an organization for about a year to turn it around and help them with whatever organizational trauma that were going through,” Fann said.
A $300,000 grant over three years from Florida Blue also helped bring stability, gave board members confidence and bought Fann, board members and staff enough time to format a long-term plan for the clinic.
Guy Jackson is chief financial officer of Guidewell Connect, a health care partner with the clinic, and chairman of the Way Free board. Jackson had served as a board member for nine months before he became the board chair in September. He said he was excited for the future of the clinic with Fann in charge.
“I believe in the mission. I really think we’re doing the right thing in Clay County and we’re hoping to support the population that just doesn’t get support unless it’s emergency services,” Jackson said. “Don was critical in us improving our financial stability. He’s been a great addition to the team. He’s provided leadership.”
The major challenges for the clinic haven’t changed: it still is in search of fundraising opportunities, donors and volunteers – physicians or administrative staff. Fann said the clinic plans to hire a full-time administrative director and a part-time medical director. He also has no illusions the old church building, rented from the county for $1 a year, one day will no longer suit the clinic’s needs.
For patients, Fann said the clinic must remove barriers that prevent people from going there, such as transportation. Potential patients may be prevented from coming because their schedule doesn’t line up with the clinic’s hours of operation of 26 hours, three days a week. Beginning Saturday, Feb. 2, the clinic will be open from 9 a.m. until Noon on the first Saturday of each month.
Fann’s one year at the clinic is up, but he recommended the board hire him as permanent director. He said Way Free Clinic was the right fit to keep going.
“I love this place and I feel like this is the best work I’ve done in my career,” he said.