Neighbors in Need
Lake County's only registered free clinic, HealthReach, and Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital help vulnerable residents
Anthony “Tony” Clark is still afraid to go to sleep at night. He frequently becomes confused or disoriented the result of seizures caused by irregular brainwaves. Tony’s condition is more difficult because he is one of thousands of Lake County residents without health insurance. Thanks to a partnership between Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital and HealthReach Incorporated, Tony is finally getting his symptoms under control.
HealthReach is Lake County’s only registered free health clinic, providing medical, dental, vision and acute care to 4,500 of the 84,000 medically uninsured residents across 18 townships. Additionally, the HealthReach state-licensed pharmacy brought in $1.26 million of free medications from national pharmaceutical companies to benefit Lake County residents in 2010 alone.
Unlike a Federally Qualified Health Center, (such as the Lake County Health Department), Illinois registered free clinics such as HealthReach are unable to charge Medicaid or Medicare and therefore rely solely on the philanthropy of individuals, faith-based institutions, local government grants and foundations. Federally Qualified Health Centers typically charge fees on a sliding scale with government-regulated income requirements. Those qualifications can be a barrier to medical services for patients like Tony: people caught between employer-sponsored health insurance and government assistance for the poor.
“At first I went to a state clinic, but they turned me away,” recalls Tony, an experienced roofer whose condition has made steady employment difficult. “But at HealthReach, I was able to see a psychologist and a specialist, and I had an audiology test at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital. I’m seeing a difference in how I feel.”
How HealthReach Works
HealthReach was founded nearly 20 years ago by local healthcare professionals who were concerned about the impact of the growing uninsured population on emergency departments. Today, HealthReach helps Lake County’s medically underserved with two offices in Mundelein and Waukegan and a small 25-person staff that includes a registered nurse, operations manager, four medical assistants and a grant-supported physician’s assistant. It uses interpreters on a contract basis and has its own pharmacy and a governing board of local industry and community leaders. The organization relies heavily on 75 local volunteer physicians, dentists, optometrists and pharmacists, as well as hospitals that provide free diagnostic testing, laboratory work and cash donations.
“These partnerships can be lifesaving,” says Jeanne Clark, RN, the clinical coordinator at HealthReach. “A local hematology/oncology group volunteered to see one of our patients who may have leukemia. They recommended several specialized tests, and Northwestern Lake Forest said ‘Yes, we’ll do it.’ We’ve also had patients go there for radiation treatment and gynecological surgeries.”
Generous, Dedicated Physicians
Tony first saw William Greenfield, MD, a retired physician who then referred him to Allen Carlins, MD, a Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital ear, nose and throat specialist who volunteers his time for HealthReach. Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital OB/Gynecologist Tanya Huang, MD is another one of HealthReach’s volunteer physicians; she sometimes sees as many as 20 patients during her twice-monthly visits.
“We have many retired physicians who see patients and several practicing physicians who carve out time from their schedules,” says Clark. “They’ll also coordinate with their colleagues, which provides us with an informal network of experts when patients need specialized care. It’s a quiet, behind-the scenes dedication.”
Power of Prevention
Lori Harper is HealthReach’s operations manager, overseeing everything from patient intake to building maintenance. She is quick to point out that HealthReach’s more complex cases should not overshadow the critical diagnostic testing and preventive care the organization provides.
“Every patient has a story,” she says. “Even if it’s just a simple vitals check or exam at our office, we’re providing care they can’t get anywhere else and reducing the number of bigger, possibly tragic stories.”
A Diverse Population
In 2011, HealthReach served more than 2,000 patients and coordinated 22,000 transactions requiring medical care and pharmacy medications. Behind the numbers is a group of highly diverse patients who do not fit a set profile or demographic group. HealthReach serves Lake County’s uninsured population, but they also see 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds who have recently lost their jobs, young college graduates too old for their parents’ insurance and the “working poor”—those working full-time and trying to support a family on minimum wages.
“We’re caring for the forgotten,” says Harper. “We might see your next-door neighbors here, and you would never know they’re struggling. There is always a group for whom no public assistance is available, and the lagging economy is putting more pressure on them.”
Benefiting the Entire Community
The HealthReach/Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital partnership does more than provide an invaluable service to Lake County residents with the greatest need of care—it lowers the costs for every healthcare consumer.
“People without insurance get sicker sooner, and their health deteriorates more rapidly. We’re preventing more costly problems and helping people stay out of the emergency department, which saves money for everyone,” says Clark.
For Tony, it means learning how to live with his seizures, receiving more effective medication, possibly some neurological care—and a measure of stability.
“My seizures are happening less often, and I’m learning more about what causes my symptoms,” he says. “I really don’t know where I’d be without HealthReach and the people at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.”