For several months now, Kevin Howard has been getting his health care from the volunteers at the North by Northeast Health Clinic. But when he went to pick up a prescription and saw a "For Sale" sign out in the front yard, he got a little worried.
"I had no insurance," he told The Skanner. "I go there in order to get my prescriptions … to get my blood pressure under control."
It would be a detriment to the community if the clinic were to close, and luckily for Howard and hundreds of other patients who have few other options for care, the non-profit health clinic won't be closing, they're actually looking to expand.
Every Thursday night, 15 to 20 uninsured people come to the North by Northeast Medical Clinic seeking help. Most of those people are new patients who need medical care from the 2-year-old facility, currently operating out of a small building on Williams Avenue.
Founded by Pastor Mary Overstreet and Dr. Jill Ginsberg to serve the needs of low income and uninsured people in the North/Northeast Neighborhoods, the clinic's small space had always been a concern, says Ginsberg. Now, the building's owner is selling and the clinic is in need of a new home.
"We outgrew the current space from the beginning," Ginsberg said, who also works part time as a physician for Kaiser.
During a visit to the clinic last week, Clinic Manager Suzy Jeffreys told The Skanner that during the winter months, the hallways and one small waiting room are filled to capacity. And with only two exam rooms available, filled with donated equipment from Kaiser, the volunteer doctors are limited as to how many patients they can see in an evening. And one-half of the building is off limits to the clinic – it houses a rarely used commercial bakery that the building's owners reserve the right to use.
The clinic is open to walk-ins from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursdays and follow-up appointments are held on Mondays. The space is so small that, once the waiting list hits 15, Jeffreys has to warn people about the possibility that they might not get in to see one of the two volunteer physicians. Jeffreys and Howard say they've never seen it happen. Nevertheless, despite cramped conditions and high temperatures during the summer months, Howard says he's never gotten better medical care.
"You weren't just a number," he says. "They pulled out all the stops for me. It wasn't about being paid. It wasn't about 'I'm a doctor and I'm better than you.' It was as if my mom was taking care of me."
In finding a new facility, Ginsberg hopes to attract more physicians, open up two more exam rooms, have a larger waiting area and hopefully have better control of the clinic's temperature. There are currently about 50 volunteers that help staff the clinic, including 15 physicians and 15 nurses.
"Physicians have been more difficult to find than anticipated," Ginsberg said, adding that funding has been easier to find than physicians. Volunteers are asked to commit about three hours a month, but she admits medical professionals work long hours as it is, making it difficult for them to commit even more time away from their personal lives. Getting them through the door is the hard part, says Ginsberg. Once doctors see the need for medical care amongst the uninsured, it's easy to keep them onboard.
"Unfortunately, the need for our services is glaringly obvious," she said.
Local medical facilities have been keen to support the clinic, as well. Legacy Health System provides lab testing services at no cost, Kaiser has donated financially and also provides surplus clinic equipment, and Providence Hospital has donated financially.
"People are constantly trying to help us," Jeffreys says.
And as the clinic enters the second phase of its existence, the women say it will most definitely be bigger, better and offer more services. Ginsberg would like to even see the community clinic become something more – a community health resource center that could offer educational and employment resources, social service recommendations, diabetic support groups and other classes, support groups and services.
"The community would really benefit from a concentration of resources of all kinds," Ginsberg said.
So far, the clinic is looking for about 1,400 square feet of commercial space in an inner Northeast neighborhood. The location needs to be close to a major bus line. If you or anyone you know can help the clinic find a new, larger location, give them a call at 503-287-4932.
"People's main concern is that we won't shut the doors," Ginsberg says. "We're not going anywhere. We plan to be here as long as there is a need."
And in the waning days of summer, Howard wants to make the offices a little more enjoyable for everyone – he's donating his A/C unit to the clinic.
"It's a small building but it's doing big work."
With economic news becoming more depressing at every turn, just how are nonprofit community health clinics fairing these days? Just about the same, says Tracy Gratto, executive director of the Coalition of Community Health Clinics.
"Tenuous," she said. "They're not closing their doors … Our clinics are as stable as they could be."
The three biggest concerns for nonprofit, safety net health clinics are stable funding, finding enough volunteers and a cheap, easy-to-access facility -- one of the biggest expenses for nonprofit health clinics. Like North by Northeast, several other clinics in the county are also looking for new facilities, a time-consuming and expensive process, Gratto says. One thing North by Northeast has going for it is community support. She says it's one of the better supported clinics in their network.
"That clinic has done a phenomenal job of garnering support in the community," she said, an essential tool for survivability when it comes to a nonprofit clinic.
The last clinic to close was the Northeast Health Clinic in 2002. Multnomah county and Care Oregon stepped in to help manage its finances, but the community support just wasn't there.
Many clinics operating today receive financial and in-kind support from a variety of hospitals, health organizations, and other sources. And with the level of awareness people have about the health crisis in America, Gratto doesn't think the community will allow another clinic to close. The need is just too great. They served about 38,500 patients last year, not including the much larger Multnomah County Health Department, and the numbers of uninsured patients keeps growing.