The Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic widened its eligibility for health care access at the start of the new year, now including those in the Shenandoah Valley who need medical assistance but didn’t previously financially qualify.
This decision, which followed Virginia’s recent Medicaid expansion, allows the clinic to treat patients up to 300 percent above the federal poverty level. The new financial guidelines surpass the previous 200 percent limit prior to the Medicaid expansion, and will impact approximately 5,000 additional individuals in the Valley.
This increased access to health care welcomes those who may not be struggling to survive but are challenged to be financially stable. Known as the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) population, these individuals and families can afford basic necessities, but not much more. Over 38 percent of households in Harrisonburg currently live at the ALICE threshold.
“We saw that this was a barrier,” Summer Sage, executive director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic, said. “We said this is an area we can provide primary care services that would make a huge impact on someone’s life and ability to provide for their family, go to work, be there and make sure their kids are healthy and going to school.”
The clinic was previously limited to treating chronic illness, but now provides primary care, behavioral health counseling and a variety of speciality clinics such as dermatology, OB-GYN, neurology and nutrition, as of August.
The clinic additionally treats the uninsured — a population that makes up 18.5 percent of Rockingham County compared to Virginia’s 16 percent as stated by SAHIE. While individuals here on temporary status, such as green cards and work visas, are still not eligible for Medicaid, they can qualify for the free clinic’s care.
Virginia is ranked 40th in the nation for mental health outcomes — the overall ranking of the states based on a score made up of 15 measures, including adults with any mental illness and adults with alcohol and drug dependence. Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are considered to have a shortage of mental health providers, according to Sage. JMU and EMU students are now working with the clinic to provide non-emergency safe spaces for those in need of behavioral health counseling.
As stated by Sentara RMH Medical Center’s Community Health Needs Assessment in 2018, 33.1 percent of Harrisonburg residents live below the federal poverty level, which is nearly triple Virginia’s 11.4-percent rate.
Rural areas like Rockingham County face logistical issues for care, including lack of public transportation and clustering of educational and medical services. This makes it difficult because some residents don’t have reliable transportation, which becomes a problem in health emergencies.
Doug Grey, executive director of Virginia Association of Health Plans, is hopeful that as a result of the Medicaid expansion, an increase in need for care in the immediate rural regions may prompt additional free clinics. As of now, there are 10 free clinics statewide.
“There are likely to be groups of members in various rural areas that qualify for this benefit where they may not be a provider, where there may not have been one all along,” Grey said. “In these cases, people who live in very rural areas may have to drive across counties or two counties to get care, and that’s not new.”
The clinic will additionally focus on patient education and addressing any other barriers that may prevent community members from accessing care. Sage’s determination to widen the free clinic was born from her own experiences, and she and the board are working to curb any additional existing hindrances.
“The clinic isn’t for the least of these, or those that hold a stigma to it,” Sage said. “This is a fully functioning primary care clinic. When you come in the front, it looks like any other doctor’s office.There are no judgments in who comes through the doors for us; everyone is going to be treated like they’re coming to their doctor’s office.”
Contact Mary Harrison at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.