RANSON — Who benefitted from the decision by West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to expand Medicaid following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act?
Annette Jackson did.
Now when Jackson, a 56-year-old housekeeper who lives in Charles Town, goes to the Eastern Panhandle CARE Clinic in Ranson, Medicaid will pay for her health care expenses — a change that Jackson calls a “relief.”
“I now have Medicaid to help pay my bills,” Jackson said. “This is really a big help. Even though I have a low-paying job, I couldn’t get Medicaid. This feels great.”
Also known as Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act allowed states the opportunity to expand their Medicaid programs to include people like Jackson, who were not previously eligible. She is just one of about 36,000 people in the Eastern Panhandle that are now eligible.
However, Tomblin’s decision forced the CARE Clinic to undergo a major transformation to care for patients like Jackson.
“It’s been a huge adjustment for us,” said Executive Director Michele Goldman. “It’s been challenging, especially for a free clinic. It’s a whole new model of care. It felt like a big burden to the medical community to meet the demand of these newly insured. We even had to change our name.” The acronym “CARE” stands for Community, Access, Resources and Education.
The Eastern Panhandle Free Clinic, as it was previously known, opened in 2001, as a free clinic for the uninsured and low-income residents. Many of those patients were referrals from hospital emergency rooms.
“We still see the uninsured and low income, but we now have a shift in the number of people getting Medicaid,” said Goldman, who has served as executive director since 2006. “Now we have new patients coming in that are with Medicaid.”
Goldman said when they clinic had just operated as a free clinic, it treated some 10,000 patients annually, with that number growing steadily each year.
At this point, Goldman said they do not have updated figures on the number of Medicaid patients they see. “The next annual report will have a hybrid of both free and Medicaid patients we see,” she said.
Goldman said the clinic hasn’t actually seen a flood of new Medicaid patients, since many no longer need the free health care. Instead, these patients are opting to see health care providers closer to home.
“Actually it’s been good for us,” she said. “We haven’t been slammed with patients. It’s giving us time to get our ducks in a row. It’s actually been a blessing.”
Vicki Shean, the clinic’s development manager, said most of its Medicaid patients have never been in the health care system. “They’ve never used the health care system for preventive care,” she said.
Goldman said seeing patients before they get sick is vital.
“It’s the preventive care that we want to see our patients use,” she said. “We want to keep well people from getting sick. We want to educate the newly insured on how to use the health care system.”
The clinic, located at North Mildred Street, offers the community a wide range of health care services.
These include comprehensive physical exams, diagnostic testing, access to specialty care, access to medications, chronic and acute care, mental health counseling and health education classes.
“We look at health from the holistic point of view,” Goldman said. “We do a needs assessment and we look at someone’s housing, transportation. We have a case manager assigned to every person.”
As a member of the clinic’s staff, Barbara Gerwatosky finds herself wearing many hats. The clinic’s care coordinator, educator and discharge planner, Gerwatosky not only helps patients transition from a hospital stay to home, but also with those struggling to lose weight and quit smoking.
“It’s really rewarding to see the success stories of some of our patients,” Gerwatosky said. “They just don’t want to be a disappointment.”
Meanwhile, clinic staff say that adapting to the new changes brought on by the Affordable Health Care Act has been a daunting task.
“Since 2010, as soon as the bill passed, we knew this was the beginning of a change for us,” Goldman said.