Published in The News-Herald | Sept. 25, 2019
By: Bill DeBus
Although the Lake County Free Clinic is approaching its 50th anniversary, Executive Director Martin Hiller doesn’t spend much time reminiscing about the organization’s formative years and historical highlights.
Instead, he is focused on how the clinic can meet a variety of future challenges involved in serving the medical needs of a larger number of residents in the region.
“The aspiration of our clinic is to be able to see more people,” he said. “We know that the community needs more.”
Clearly, the staff and volunteers at the clinic in Painesville kept busy in 2018, when they cared for almost 1,300 people in nearly 4,000 treatment visits. But a fact sheet from the clinic also points out that on any given day in Lake County, more than 16,000 people are unable to afford health
insurance or costs associated with their existing health coverage, such as co-payments and deductibles.
That wide gap between the number of patients served by the clinic and how many county residents are uninsured or underinsured for health care is a matter of concern for Hiller.
“There are a lot of people out there that had need for us that didn’t get to our door,” he said.
Located at 54 S. State St., Suite 302, the clinic is the only free one in Lake, Ashtabula, Geauga and eastern Cuyahoga counties for those who are uninsured, underinsured, or otherwise unable to access needed health care, the fact sheet states.
Services range from ongoing treatment for chronic health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma, to care for acute illnesses such as sore throat, fever, and colds and coughs. The clinic also provides preventative care, such as physicals and nutrition counseling; and dental services, including extractions and exams.
Patients must make appointments for a clinic visit, but they do not have to live in Lake County. And the clinic is not intended only for those who are destitute or unemployed.
“More than half of the people we see here work,” Hiller said. “There are a lot of people out there, even if they’re offered health insurance, it may be offered to them in a way where they can’t pay a premium.
“Or if they can access some of the public funded plans through the Affordable Care Act, what they may be able to afford is catastrophic care, a policy that would cover them if they had a heart attack or a broken bone,” he added. “But if they have hypertension or diabetes and need to see a
physician regularly, a primary care doctor, they can’t afford to do that, because they’re paying full pay.
“So for us, having somebody come in and say that they’re working is much more common than not.”
While all patients are asked to make a $20 donation during their visit to the clinic, no one is refused care if they are unable to contribute.
“Interestingly enough, when given the opportunity to make a donation, many patients, maybe even most patients, do,” Hiller said. “Last year, over $25,000 came to the Lake County Free Clinic through patient donations. That’s about 5 percent of our operating budget.”
Other sources of revenue for the Lake County Free Clinic include funding from United Way of Lake County and contributions from a variety of other sources.
“We look for individuals who believe in our mission, and are willing to make us part of their annual charitable giving,” Hiller said. “We look for organizations and foundations whose mission of service in the community fits our mission, and make appeals in those regards.”
In addition, the Lake County Free Clinic raises funds through its annual Run for the Health of It 5K race and 1-mile walk, to be held this year on Oct. 13 at Lake Erie Bluffs in Perry Township. More information about the race can be found on the organization’s website at lakefreeclinic.org.
Hiller is no stranger to cultivating various sources of local funding for free clinics, having worked at the Cleveland Free Clinic for 27 years. For 20 of those years, he served as the organization’s executive director.
“I’ve done a lot of national consulting for free clinics and I always say to them, ‘The only way you can have a successful free clinic is if you have a strong community base of support,’ ” Hiller said.
Lake County Free Clinic has been a part of the community since 1971, when it opened on Heisley Road in Mentor. About 25 years ago, the clinic relocated to Painesville.
Hiller considers the clinic’s current location in downtown Painesville as “sort of the epicenter for the patient population we focus on serving.”
“Our primary population are the uninsured … as far as the demographics of the uninsured and their ability to reach us, this general location is ideal for us,” he said. “We would anticipate remaining in this area as long as our population is most concentrated in this area.”
When it comes to staffing the clinic, a combination of paid personnel and volunteers join forces to fulfill the needs of patients.
While the clinic employs four full-time and four part-time employees, it also maintains a roster of volunteer doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses and medical assistants; as well as helpers who donate their time and talents in the areas of patient intake and follow-up, and
“So, were it not for our volunteers, we would be able to see significantly fewer patients,” Hiller said.
The clinic is always actively seeking additional volunteers.
“It is an ongoing and major focus of the organization,” Hiller said.
However, scheduling those volunteers can be challenging because space at the clinic is cramped.
“There’s only so many people you can have moving back and forth,” Hiller said. “For us, scheduling volunteers is a juggling act. We do pretty well at it.”
Hiller said the next likely step to increase patients’ access to services would be adding some regular weekend and evening hours — “to make our care available at times that people don’t have to miss work to utilize it.”
“If we’re able to open those hours, it may also open some doors for us to recruit some volunteers who might not have been able to come in during more regular hours,” he said.
Currently, the Lake County Free Clinic’s regular hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Mondays; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Fridays. The clinic also is open occasionally on Saturdays and just started piloting what it hopes will become a one evening per week program, Hiller said.
While making services available to more patients is a desirable goal, Hiller said it would be important to monitor how that change affects three key areas at the clinic: space, finances and personnel.
“It may be space won’t be as much of an issue,” he said. “We will need additional manpower … and we’ll need operational support to increase, because while we are free to the patients, it costs us for every service we provide. So as we do this, we anticipate our operating budget will increase.”