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Free and Charitable Clinics Speaking as One on Behalf of North Carolina’s Uninsured

April Cook

With Medicaid expansion closer than ever to becoming a reality for North Carolina, people all over our state have been focusing on the details and asking an important question: What does it really mean for low-income North Carolinians and how will it really affect their access to health care?

North Carolina’s free and charitable clinics are making an important contribution to this conversation. And I’m proud to say that the 7O members of the North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics are speaking as one, delivering a message that is celebratory and sobering at the same time.

The short answer to the question, of course, is that Medicaid expansion is a huge, wonderful step forward for North Carolina. Once it becomes law, hundreds of thousands of hard-working, low-income people will become newly eligible for health care coverage under the federal government’s Medicaid insurance program. For that, we are grateful to the leadership of our great state.

However, as our members have highlighted in letters and visits with their state legislators, the hard reality is that an estimated 700,000 low-income residents in North Carolina will remain uninsured and still in need of the low-cost, no-cost health care that free and charitable clinics provide.

Krista Woolly, executive director of Community Care Clinic of Rowan County, and April Cook, CEO of the North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, with PBS NewsHour correspondent John Yang, who visited the Salisbury clinic March 28 to hear about the estimated 700,000 North Carolina residents who will remain uninsured following Medicaid expansion.

In fact, the unmet health care needs of our state’s most vulnerable residents are growing, outpacing our capacity to serve them, and Medicaid expansion won’t change that. That’s why we’re asking the General Assembly to approve a recurring appropriation of $15 million so we can reach more of the uninsured.

The legislature recognized our vital role in North Carolina’s safety net by approving $27 million over the past two years to support our clinics during the pandemic. Now we’re requesting ongoing state support – as other states already provide – to supplement our traditional reliance on volunteer staff and community funding.

Our message is getting out, both in meetings with lawmakers and in interviews with local and national media. PBS NewsHour sent a TV crew to Community Care Clinic of Rowan County in late March to hear about the needs of North Carolinians who won’t benefit from Medicaid expansion.

This is truly our story to tell. Free and charitable clinics are unique among North Carolina’s safety-net providers in our exclusive focus on the uninsured, and we speak on their behalf. I am grateful to all who have worked hard to ensure our message is heard – proof of the power of many voices speaking as one.

Thank you!

April Cook
Chief Executive Officer

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Faith and opportunity to have an impact drive award-winning volunteer

Dr. Ken Rousselo is a foot soldier in an army of thousands – the more than 7,000 volunteers who are the lifeblood of North Carolina’s free and charitable clinics, donating their talents and nearly 193,000 hours of their time to ensure patients get the care they need to put them on the path to better health.

Dr. Rousselo with a Samaritan Health Center patient

Rousselo, an optometrist who has provided vision care for patients of Samaritan Health Center in Durham going on 14 years, embodies the spirit of volunteerism and community service that makes clinics tick. Ken received the NCAFCC’s 2022 Don Lucey Award in recognition of his contributions.

The NCAFCC established the Don Lucey award in 2001 in honor of its namesake, who for more than 35 years has championed more and better health care for the state’s underserved. Lucey helped start the Open Door Clinic in Raleigh, one of North Carolina’s first free clinics, in 1985, and also helped establish the NCAFCC’s precursor, the North Carolina Association of Free Clinics, and served as its first president.

While the honor was humbling, the opportunity to live his faith and make a difference in the lives of others are reward enough for Ken, who started working with Samaritan in 2009 when the clinic was operating out of extra space on the campus of the Durham Rescue Mission. The clinic’s optometrist was phasing into retirement, and a church friend asked Ken if he’d be interested in volunteering.

“As a Christian, I feel called on to help the least of my brothers,” Ken said. “I’ve been blessed with a career choice that allows me to do something that can impact people’s lives, and I think it’s so important for all Christians and believers to use the skills they were blessed with to try to further the work of Jesus and be his hands and feet here on earth.”

Samaritan Health Center now operates two eye clinics – one at the original Durham Rescue Mission site and the other at its current clinic location. Executive Director Elizabeth Brill praises Ken for his role in expanding the number of volunteer optometrists to four, helping to secure upgraded optical equipment and increasing the number of eye exams provided by Samaritan 62% from 2010 to 2021.

The 58-year-old Cary resident, who operates his own practice, Preston Optometry, donated about eight hours a month in the early years but has cut back to half that now that the clinic has other volunteers to share the load. Ken continues to serve patients from the Durham Rescue Mission location.

Over the years, Ken’s service has gone well beyond the optometrist’s day-to-day activity. One patient came in thinking a new prescription would correct their vision, only to learning that the problem was cataracts and couldn’t be corrected by new glasses. Ken helped set up a referral with a local cataract surgeon who performed the surgery at no charge to the patient.

“What a huge difference that was in that person’s life to have someone else jump in and help in their area of expertise to help this person see,” Ken said. “Just taking a little bit of time to use the skills you’re blessed with to help people just makes the world a better place.”

With more than a decade of volunteer experience with Samaritan Health Center under his belt, Ken has come to appreciate the integrated approach to health care that is possible with clinic staff and volunteer specialists like himself working closely together. That approach provides significant benefits for patients, especially those managing chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes that can lead to vision impairment or blindness.

“The medical aspect of it is so important. There are doctors and nurses who are seeing these patients and they’re identifying diabetic patients and sending them to me,” Ken said. “I feel like we’re giving them so much more comprehensive care than they would receive elsewhere. It’s a great team effort to work with nurses and physicians and administrators to get this all put together.”

While Ken has no plans to retire anytime soon, he hopes to continue volunteering at Samaritan Health Center in retirement. He also wants to do more international work similar to a church mission trip 12 years ago when he provided vision care to underserved residents in Kenya. And he wants to influence more of his fellow optometrists to get involved in volunteer work.

The annual Don Lucey Award winner is selected by the NCAFCC board from clinics’ nominations to recognize influential leaders and volunteers from the free and charitable clinic community. While it’s meant to honor an individual, Ken deflects all credit back on Elizabeth and Paul Van Tongeren, the clinic’s patient services coordinator who handles patient screening, schedules eye exams and works with Ken to make sure patients get their new eyeglasses when they come in.

“I feel like it’s more of an award for the full-time staff of the Samaritan Health Center than it is for me because I just show up and do my little part, and it is little,” Ken said. “I’m happy to do it and I feel great about what we do, but the full-time staff at the Samaritan Health Center are the real heroes here because they’re the ones coming in Monday through Friday and making this happen. They just set it up for me and I show up and do my thing.”

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