Arkansas currently ranks 46th in poverty rates with 18.1 percent of the population living in poverty compared to the national average of 14.6 percent. According to a study conducted by Welfare Info, this means that one out of every five residents in Arkansas lives below the poverty line, or 524,21l individuals out of the approximate 2,899,095 population.
Individuals living in poverty are limited to opportunities and resources to assist in getting back on their feet.
However, through the work of community members and volunteer physicians, health care is accessible for individuals unable to afford medical care or insurance. Free and charitable health clinics are nonprofit organizations serving families and individuals living in low-income households or poverty.
Britney Gulley, director of development for WelcomeHealth in Fayetteville, explained how her clinic was started.
“In 1986, there was a group of concerned citizens that wanted to take care of their less fortunate neighbors and provide them with health care because many were low-income and of course, uninsured,” she said. “It kind of started as a small little venture in the southern part of Fayetteville, and quickly they realized there was a huge demand for services. It provided free medical care, and people would come from all over Northwest Arkansas and the surrounding areas.”
WelcomeHealth is entering its 35th year as a free health and dental clinic, and it’s one of many clinics in the state that started out with a group of community members seeing a need and wanting to fix it.
Interfaith, a charitable health clinic in El Dorado, has been around since 1995 serving people in south Arkansas.
“There was a group of clergy and doctors who saw a need for people’s medical care that were uninsured. They got together and created what’s now Interfaith Clinic,” said Jill Temple, executive director of Interfaith. “They were operating out of the basement of a library with volunteer doctors. They had one patient the first night.”
As needs evolved, the clinic partnered with the Share Foundation to help with overhead costs and growth. The clinic grew walk-in only to appointments-based with volunteers and paid providers.
“We provide just primary medical care, and then we’re also able to do lab work through grants for the patient,” Temple said. “We try to piece together all those parts for our patients so they don’t have to choose between groceries, diapers and health care.”
In total, there are around 20 free and charitable health clinics scattered across the state. Patti Kimbrough, executive director of the Good Samaritan Clinic in Fort Smith, said most of the state is facing similar issues regarding low income.
“[Fort Smith] has a homeless population, as do most cities, and there is also the working poor — I hate to use that term, but that’s what is loosely used,” she said. “It’s the uninsured and the underinsured in our community, the hard-working people that just simply can’t afford the insurance that their employers offer. They’re doing their best to provide for their families and make ends meet.
“Nine times out of 10, they put their own personal health care off because of the needs of their family, and we’re simply giving them the option so they don’t have to push off their own needs.”
WelcomeHealth along with others in the state are free clinics, meaning they do not charge for any visits or situations, are entirely donation-based or sponsored by organizations.
“There’s a misconception that because [WelcomeHealth] is a free clinic, it must be funded by the government, state or federal. That is definitely not the case,” Gulley shared. “We receive a few grants that we apply for and it covers about 14 percent of our overall budget. Above that is strictly donations from companies, other foundations, civic groups and churches. We have some very loyal individual donors that have been with us for years.”
Interfaith, Good Samaritan and others in the state see patients based on a few criteria concerning household income, age and other factors, but the situation is rare that any clinic turns away a patient.
“We ask for an $8 fee, but we have never sent anyone home for not being able to pay,” Temple said.
“It’s very much like a sliding scale with household income and the number in the household as two major, compelling components,” Kimbrough said. “The majority of our patients are new patients from the hospital systems. An emergency patient will go to the ER, and they may end up having to stay at the hospital. The hospital or case worker will then reach out to us because of the close relationship [Good Samaritan] has with the hospitals. We all have the patients’ best interests in mind, so the hospital will make sure that the individual can receive continued care at the clinic with our physicians. This really is a community partnership.”
The physicians at free and charitable clinics often work at the clinics as volunteers. Retired nurses and physicians will volunteer their free time to help, and residents from nearby offices and hospitals will work at the clinics to gain experience.
“[WelcomeHealth] has an army of professional volunteers that we can count on, and we would not be the clinic that we are if we did not have them,” Gulley said. “We have pre-med and pre-dental students from the University of Arkansas who volunteer. This gives them a feel of what it’s really like and if this field is something they want to continue to pursue. We’ve had several regional students that have gone on to dental school and then, as a big compliment to us, they come back as professionals to volunteer again.”
Kimbrough said patients and volunteers alike glean something from the experience at Good Samaritan.
“We have a retired RN who comes in, and she absolutely loves it. All of our volunteers are so helpful in putting files together, calling patients to remind them of their appointments. The physicians are amazing, and I cannot say enough about the volunteer nursing staff.”
Another essential volunteer position is that of translator or those physicians who are bilingual.
“Our Hispanic patient base has grown exponentially since I have been at Good Samaritan, and it’s important that they feel comfortable,” Kimbrough said. “We’re really invested in making our Hispanic community members feel welcome, and that starts with having people that can translate for them.”
Community outreach for each clinic is largely based on word-of-mouth from volunteers and patients. Prior to COVID-19, many clinics relied on community events to spread the word about what free and charitable clinics offer. Likewise, the clinics face difficulties related to funding or fast growth.
Temple noted that Interfaith is hosting an event for doctors and nurse practitioners to raise awareness and hopefully bring in more volunteers. “Our goal is to increase our number of professionals working at the clinic,” Temple said.
Those who have worked or volunteered at a free or charitable clinic will attest to the emotional experiences they had inside those walls as people receive the care they were not able to get elsewhere.
“Truly, [free and charitable clinics] are a place where you see tiny miracles every single day. I could tell you story after story that would just warm your heart,” Kimbrough said. “A former patient, who got a job and good insurance, came in one afternoon and threw a lot of cash on the counter. I’m like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! What are you doing?’ She said, ‘You helped me, and now I’ll help you help someone else.’ I told her ‘no,’ that this was what we were here for and to take her money back, but she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She was going to do it no matter what.”
Gulley stressed, “You’re going to be treated with respect and dignity here. We have a nice, bright state-of-the-art facility with everything in working order. You might even say it’s nicer than a regular doctor’s office.”
Each clinic is unique, but all have one mission in mind: to serve the community and help relieve a few burdens weighing some Arkansans down.
“The beauty of charitable clinics is that the patients don’t stay your patients forever. They either get their stuff back in order, get Medicaid or age into Medicare, or more times than not, they get well, and they get to a good place where they can get a better job that has insurance,” Kimbrough shared. “I think that’s the amazing part of it, but there’s always a need, and the need is great.”