It’s been a while since Larry Holmes last saw a doctor, despite the pains in his chest and the occasional flare-ups of gout.
“It’s been over a year,” Holmes said Wednesday in the waiting room of the newly opened health clinic on the grounds of St. Mary Catholic Church.
Holmes, who is 57 and unemployed, has looked for manual labor jobs, a difficult prospect given the economy and his health problems, he said.
“I’m trying to get my health right,” Holmes said.
The clinic at St. Mary’s, which treats low-income patients who don’t have public or private insurance, opened last week in an attempt to increase much-needed access to health care.
It’s an addition to a free dental clinic that opened more than a year ago at St. Mary’s to treat uninsured people with acute dental problems.
The clinic’s executive director, Laura Vinson-Garvey, sits on the board of Cape Fear HealthNet, a nonprofit collaboration of safety-net providers and social service agencies focused on health options for the uninsured poor.
As the weak economy caused a jump in people without health coverage, the board has gotten concerned about the community’s low-income and free clinics becoming filled to maximum capacity and unable to take on new patients.
Vinson-Garvey worried about patients who came to the dental clinic but had to wait for their extractions until they saw a doctor to get their high blood pressure under control.
“There was basically nowhere for people to go to get their hypertension treated. Some of them had strokes (while they were) waiting to be seen,” she said, adding that the Ann Street clinic decided to help out with the space available to them.
Through a wholly volunteer effort, the clinic added three medical exam rooms with tables given to them by New Hope Clinic from the Brunswick County free clinic’s recent move.
St. Mary’s donates clinic spaces next to the church’s gym near where the Tileston free health clinic used to operate before it moved in 2007. A handful of doctors rotate days to see patients three times a week. All of the office staff besides Vinson-Garvey is made up of volunteers.
Since the medical appointments started, the doctors have seen about 10 patients per clinic, which run two or three hours at a time.
Vinson-Garvey said a number of patients have issues with high blood pressure or diabetes. Many have not seen a doctor in more than a year. And some are newly unemployed and uninsured, jumping back and forth between meeting and not meeting the eligibility requirements for Medicaid.
“They don’t have a medical home,” she said.
Nearly 27,900 people in New Hanover County, or about 15 percent of the population, are uninsured, according to the latest census estimates about health coverage.
The estimates, from the 2008 American Community Survey, also showed that 27 percent of Brunswick County residents, or 27,500 people, reported not having health insurance.
“All of the safety-net partners are stretched,” said Tami Eldridge, executive director for Cape Fear HealthNet. “The demand for services continues to grow. Although Cape Fear HealthNet (member groups) are trying to do everything they can, it’s just outstripping our ability to provide increased services. The addition of St. Mary’s to the scene is a wonderful addition.”
Vicky Eckenrode: 343-2339
On Twitter.com: @vickyeckenrode
St. Mary Health Center
412 Ann St., 520-7218
Clinic hours: Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Hours vary; call for details.
Eligibility: Free for those 200 percent or less of poverty guidelines. Patients must show proof of income and are asked to give a $10 donation if they can.