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Augusta Health receives national recognition for community care

People chats as Douglas, wearing a white shirt with a white beard checks in
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News
Deborah Dabney, left, chats with Caitlin Powers as Roger Douglas Hensley checks in at an Augusta Health mobile clinic event on Thursday, June 27, 2024 at Calvary United Methodist Church in Stuart Draft, Virginia.

Rural hospital expanding free treatment for un- and underinsured

A rural nonprofit hospital in Augusta County is experimenting with a unique approach to providing care to people who can’t afford it.

Augusta Health’s Population Health and Community Outreach and Partnership team began setting up off-site medical clinics in 2022. Initially, the goal was to provide free medical care to those who needed it and to make that care more easily accessible for patients.

The group started by partnering with local organizations to set up pop-up clinics in off-site locations, like local community centers and churches. In the past two years, the hospital has partnered with groups serving the area’s Latino and LGBTQ+ communities.

Isaac Izzillo, Augusta Health’s director of public and primary care services, is part of the team that helped develop the initiative. He said the idea for the community clinics began during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was highlighted through COVID that people were just having these really difficult times accessing care,” Izzillo said.

During the pandemic, Augusta Health partnered with community organizations to set up over 400 COVID-19 vaccine clinics across the county. Hospital leaders subsequently relied on those relationships to create the community-based clinics to treat a variety of health-care needs.

The clinics started in just two locations, but has since expanded to 14 unique sites each month, including community centers, churches, a firehouse, a shelter for those experiencing homelessness and even a local mayor’s office.

Augusta Health is exploring additional options to expand its care beyond the neighborhood clinics. Izzillo said the hospital is looking to add a mobile unit that will allow the teams to drive to patients. He said this would help reach people who aren’t able to get transportation to one of their pop-up clinics.

Since its start in September 2022, more than 1,050 people have sought care at the clinics set up around Augusta County.

A man who wanted to be identified only as Jonathan stopped in for a check-up at one of those locations, Calvary United Methodist Church in Stuarts Draft. He was living in a tent and suffering from a dental infection when he learned about the free clinics last winter.

“It gave me some hope that there was a way to take care of literally pressing issues,” Jonathan said.

During his first visit, care providers helped him get glasses and provided him with medicine to treat his infection.

Nurses at the clinic have also been helping him monitor his blood pressure to determine if he’ll need to go on medicine for treatment.

“I wasn’t a number, I wasn’t a cog. There was really compassionate care, and from my perspective, really exceptional care,” Jonathan said.

Jonathan chats with Miller
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News
Jonathan chats with Laura Miller during an Augusta Health mobile clinic event on Thursday, June 27, 2024 at Calvary United Methodist Church in Stuart Draft, Virginia.

Each clinic is staffed by about four team members: an administrative assistant to handle scheduling, a nurse, a physician assistant and an office manager. Larger clinics require additional team members to meet patient demand.

Izzillo said the teams are a key component to their community clinic’s success.

“We have an exceptional team that really sets the standard. It’s more of a family environment and making them very welcome, and making them feel like they are valued,” Izzillo said. “People that experience social determinants of health and have a lot of challenges, [they] don’t experience that very often.”

Augusta County has a population of just over 78,000 people. Nearly 15,000 of those people are uninsured, according to a 2020 National Institute of Health survey. Izzillo said about half of the people who rely on the clinic’s care are uninsured. The other half are those he called underinsured — who rely on Medicare and Medicaid but can’t afford copays.

Jonathan gets his blood pressure measured
Shaban Athuman
/
VPM News
Jonathan measures his blood pressure during an Augusta Health mobile clinic event on Thursday, June 27, 2024 at Calvary United Methodist Church in Stuart Draft, Virginia.

With a budget of roughly $1 million — made up mostly from charitable giving in addition to Medicaid and Medicare payments — the neighborhood care clinics provide assistance with no out-of-pocket cost to their patients.

The aim is to provide a holistic approach to health care. The team treats common chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and hypertension, and they also help patients access medications and blood tests.

“We take a real comprehensive approach to manage choosing our patients’ care, and leveraging all those partnerships inside our organization and out in our community to help to meet the needs of our patients,” Izzillo said.

Those efforts are making a difference for patients.

“We looked at our patients a year before they saw us, versus a year after, and emergency room visits are down over 20%. Urgent care visits are down 41% and hospitalizations are down 66%,” Izzillo said.

The clinics’ impacts are generating national attention. Augusta Health was named one of two 2024 Health Equity Award recipients by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The award recognizes organizations that have had a significant impact on health equity for specific populations in their communities.

Izzillo said at-risk communities have a higher likelihood for negative health outcomes and a lower propensity to seek care. He hopes the clinics can increase the access to high-quality care to those in need by removing the cost barrier.

He also wanted other care providers across the country to take notice and replicate Augusta Health’s work.

“Being able to share our message and our playbook to others, I just hope that they can help influence them to make differences in their communities,” Izzillo said.

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