Serving the underserved

Clinica Gratis operates in the basement of the United Center on a shoestring budget — nearly all of its medical professionals are volunteers with the exception of one full-time and two part-time nurse practitioners.

Last year, the entire organization’s budget was $430,000 and it served almost 2,400 patients.

Clinica Gratis, meaning “free clinic” in Spanish, opened up in 1997 with the intent of serving the underserved — patients who don’t have insurance or the means to pay for medical care.

The clinic opened up in a one-room apartment with a $5,000 grant from Self Regional Healthcare.

“We really didn’t necessarily have a name, but the easiest thing to say was ‘the free clinic’ in Spanish, and that was ‘la clinica gratis,’” Goodman said. “But we don’t just serve the Hispanic population — we serve anybody who does not have insurance.”

The doctors who rotate at the clinic on a volunteer-basis are the same doctors the patients would see if they went to a hospital or private practice.

But the patients who go to Clinica Gratis often have few options.

Teresa Goodman, executive director of Community Initiatives, said if they don’t go to the clinic, the only place they can go is an emergency room.

“Our biggest partner is Self Regional, and that is for various reasons — the biggest being, if our patients with no insurance come to our clinic instead of going to the emergency room, it saves Self Regional millions of dollars a year,” Goodman said. “Out of the 2,400 patient visits that we did last year, if about 2,000 (of those) patients had gone to Self Regional’s emergency department, it would have cost them upwards of $3 million.”

The clinic provides the same care a private practice can, and if patient’s need additional care, they help them get it.

“We had a patient show up who was sick, who needed to go, they had an emergency. So what ended up happening is our staff took them to the emergency room and stayed with them literally until about 9 that night because they needed a translator,” Goodman said.

When the patient was released from the hospital, Clinica Gratis staff took him to get his medicine and drove him home.

“No doctor’s office is going to say, ‘Let me take you to the emergency room, stay with you, make sure you get good care, oh yeah, and let’s get your medicine, and you don’t have a way home? We’ll take you home,’” Goodman said. “They don’t do that. That’s the difference here.”

On March 1, CVS Health Foundation announced it is donating $1 million in grants to 49 free and charitable clinics across the United States.

One of the 49, Clinica Gratis will receive $20,000 toward its diabetes program — a program the clinic started in 2015 with a $35,000 grant also from CVS Health.

“The program that we applied for that we provide here was our diabetic program, and the reason that it was innovative and strategic is because number one, we provide them with all of the things they need to care for themselves through a partnership with MUSC,” Goodman said. “In addition to that, we have special clinics just for our diabetic patients where we check their feet, we check their extremities, we talk to them about diet and exercise, and not only do we have the educational classes, we also put those things into action.”

The clinic offers exercise classes, such as yoga and Zumba, as well as cooking classes for patients. Goodman said they have an incentive program linked to a device that tracks their steps. When they walk a certain number of steps, they receive prizes.

“A lot of times, we have the funding to make sure the general clinics are running, but when you’re talking about specialty clinics and all the things that you need in order to do them, sometimes that gets a little hard,” Goodman said.

Teri Rodriguez has been the clinic manager for nine years, but before that, she was also a patient at the clinic.

Because Rodriguez learned English at a young age, she was the designated translator for her older family members, and if her mom got sick, she would go with her to Clinica Gratis to translate.

“My mom, she’s really specific on who translates for her, so when we came, she was like, ‘I want you to translate,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t even know if that’s allowed,’” Rodriguez said.

When the physician at the time saw Rodriguez translating for her mom, she offered her a job.

“She first made me work, and then she interviewed me and gave me the position,” Rodriguez said.

Going from the daughter of a patient to an employee, Rodriguez said she wants to show patients the same compassion her mom received.

“Because I’ve been a patient before, I’m a better caregiver to provide the services. Because I know how it feels to be mistreated in other places, or not be given the right care,” Rodriguez said.

Goodman said even though the center is small and on the bottom floor a building that hosts several other organizations, their services save a lot of people.

“We’re down here in the basement saving people’s lives,” Goodman said.

Contact staff writer Ariel Gilreath at 864-943-5644 or follow on Twitter @IJARIELGILREATH.

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