A few years ago when St. Peter’s Free Clinic would open its doors on Tuesday nights, volunteers could expect patient numbers in the triple digits. But last Tuesday, only three people came.
“This is the fewest people I’ve seen in the 13 years I’ve been volunteering here,” said Elsie Hayward, who was a registered nurse at Hillsdale Hospital for 40 years before volunteering at the free clinic.
St. Peter’s Free Clinic, located in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, opened its door nearly 15 years ago. It has a staff of volunteer nurses, physician assistants, doctors, pharmacy technicians and chiropractors. The clinic provides checkups, writes prescriptions, and offers assistance to those who can’t afford their medication.
But in Hillsdale the need for these once-crucial services is dwindling because of changes in America’s healthcare system.
“More people got coverage under the Affordable Care Act and Michigan’s Medicaid expansion and didn’t need to come in,” said Caroline Keinath, a volunteer who has organized meals at the free clinic from its beginning.
Since the free clinic runs from 5 to 8 p.m., many of the volunteers have to work through dinner time. Keinath has made sure all the volunteers get fed, but recently her job has gotten a little easier.
“Before the Affordable Care Act, we had 25 to 30 volunteers every night, but now we only have 12 to 15,” Keinath said.
The drop in volunteers corresponds to the drop in need.
Randy Podoll, a physician assistant at the Reading Health Clinic and a volunteer at the free clinic for 10 years, said the clinic averaged 65 patients per Tuesday before Medicaid expansion.
He said before the Affordable Care Act, he would write as many as 100 prescriptions per night.
“I wrote two tonight,” Podoll said. “But it can still get up to as many as 12.”
Although the free clinic is scheduled to stay open until 8 p.m. every Tuesday, volunteers began to pack up their things after being open for just one hour on March 28 due to the lack of visitors.
Dona Hartnagel, a pharmacy technician and volunteer, said the fewer patients have made work easier for the volunteers.
“We have gone from a high of writing about 275 prescriptions per night to three tonight and staying here until 11 p.m. some nights to going home at 6 p.m. tonight,” Hartnagel said.
In 2003, St. Peter’s Free Clinic saw 1,585 patients and distributed more than $200,000 worth of medication. By 2012, those numbers had grown even more: the clinic saw 3,090 visitors and provided almost $1.4 million in medication. But in 2015, the clinic helped only 524 people, and the volunteers said they expect those numbers to continue to fall.
Despite the recent decrease in need for free medical services, volunteer George Fowler said the benefits of the free clinic are still felt today.
“I had a lady come and tell me the other day, ‘You guys really helped me. You found I had diabetes and told me what was going to happen if I didn’t help myself. I lost more than 100 pounds and got off all the medicine,’” Fowler said.
The volunteers said they have mixed feelings on the decline in patients.
“We have less clients in here, so we don’t probably have the impact we used to,” Podoll said. “Meanwhile, we’ll keep it open as long as there is a need.”
Jamie Bauerly, the executive coordinator of St. Peter’s Free Clinic, said she’s waiting to see what happens with healthcare to determine the future of the clinic.
“We hope that we go out of business,” Bauerly said. “We hope that there is not a need for free clinic. With the Healthy Michigan Plan, more resources are available for people.”
Bauerly said the clinic is helping less people directly, but has been able to refer people to new services like the Hillsdale Center for Family Health, which opened in August 2015 and accepts Medicaid.
“One of the things that we’ve always done here at the clinic is try try to give people the resources they need, and if we can’t provide them, then we point them to where they can go to get help,” Bauerly said. “We try not to just turn people away.”