Free clinics deal with volunteer shortage, canceled fundraisers as economic hardship looms

Weeks before hospitals and doctors’ offices began canceling appointments and the governor started limiting gatherings in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Karen Legato knew hard times were coming.

Legato, executive director of Health Brigade — one of more than 60 medical clinics in Virginia that offer free services to uninsured and low-income people — began to make the difficult decisions she believed were necessary during an unprecedented public health disaster.

She recalled the public health outreach workers who normally go out into neighborhoods and prisons and directed her staff to prepare to transition to an entirely virtual model.

Last week, the clinic’s comprehensive harm reduction program, which gives clean needles and information about substance abuse recovery resources to people using drugs, handed out 30-day supplies to its participants.

The clinic gave three months worth of medicine to patients in need and mental health providers switched to phone or video sessions.

Their message to the staff and patients was the same: stay home.

“We don’t know how bad it’s going to get,” Legato said. “[But] we have a sense of how bad it’s going to get.”

Free and charitable clinics across the state are facing the immediate threat of a pandemic that is likely to hit their patients — the low-income, uninsured and chronically ill — particularly hard. That is at the same time they face volunteer and personal protective equipment shortages, canceled fundraisers and the prospect of an increased demand for their services as the economy tanks and more people lose their jobs.

“Back in 2008, when the economy took a turn, we were flooded with patients — people who really never thought they would be in a position to need a charitable clinic,” said Julie Bilodeau, CEO of CrossOver Health Care Ministry, which runs two charitable clinics in the Richmond area. “We may need to, unfortunately, prepare for that again.”

CrossOver decided to postpone its corporate breakfast fundraiser and moved its Spring Into Action Women’s Breakfast to an online giving initiative. Health Brigade had to cancel its 50th anniversary gala, scheduled for March 13 at the Jefferson Hotel. Last year’s event brought in more than $62,000.

Many clinics in the state plan their fundraisers for springtime, said Rufus Phillips, CEO of the Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, which represents 61 clinics.

“There’s never been a greater need than right now,” Phillips said.

But even as those who run charitable clinics face a bleak future, they are more focused on the urgency that comes with the immediate threat posed by COVID-19, they say.

CrossOver is still seeing patients, although it is encouraging its patients to call first and to avoid coming in person if it’s not necessary. All patients are being asked screening questions to determine the likelihood of the person having COVID-19 and those who come in person are screened before entering the building.

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Richmond Times-Dispatch
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