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St. Peter’s Free Clinic, which opened nearly 15 years ago, has seen a decline in patient numbers in recent years.

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.”