by Jessica Langdon
Kathy has always cared for others and was scared to be living without health insurance when she became sick and needed care.
“What do you do?” said Kathy, who asked to be identified only by her first name.
“Do you sit and wait and hope, pray that it gets better?”
A friend suggested the Saint Vincent Clinic in Leavenworth.
It is part of Caritas Clinics, Inc., and was opened by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth in 1986 to serve thousands who didn’t have insurance.
The other Caritas facility — the Duchesne Clinic — opened in Kansas City, Kan., in 1989 and is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The Duchesne Clinic operates in the poorest ZIP code in Kansas and serves residents of Wyandotte County.
Both are considered “safety net” clinics, where medical professionals diagnose and treat acute illnesses, help manage chronic conditions and make referrals to specialists.
The goal of both clinics is to provide respectful and compassionate care in an environment that serves as a medical home to low-income, uninsured patients.
And both clinics have seen significant increases in the number of patients they’ve treated in the last several years. In 2012 alone, the Duchesne Clinic served 2,369 people; Saint Vincent, 930 patients.
A medical home
Uninsured literally means that; patients don’t have private insurance and aren’t covered by Medicare or Medicaid.
The $15 flat fee per visit is often waived if someone truly can’t pay.
When people don’t have insurance, they sometimes turn to the emergency room for basic health care, said Eileen Amari-Vaught, nurse practitioner at the Duchesne Clinic.
But many emergency room visits can be avoided with the help of a place to turn for an illness or injury that isn’t a true emergency.
“It’ll keep the waiting lines down in the emergency room and keep the emergency rooms open for emergencies,” she said. “[Our clinics provide] a warm, loving environment. Our patients seem to feel safe here.”
“It’s a place where everyone respects each other,” she added. “It’s a place where their voices can be heard.”
The health care professionals understand the challenges their patients face and try to be concrete in their approach, encouraging lifestyle changes that anyone can make, said Lisa Bara, nurse manager at the Duchesne Clinic.
Patients feel so at home there, she has found, they find it hard to leave when circumstances change and they have other coverage.
“They actually make you feel like you’re going to meet a family member versus I’m going to the doctor,” said Kathy.
She knows there’ll be needles, but she can relax instead of cringe.
Saint Vincent has four exam rooms — plenty for the moment.
But it’s a different story at Duchesne.
It’s standard for doctors’ offices to have about three exam rooms per provider to maximize efficiency, explained Karole Bradford, Caritas development director.
Duchesne has six rooms — but always more than two providers at a time, because of the combination of clinic staff and professionals who volunteer their time.
So as the clinics map out their plans for the future, infrastructure, capacity and space certainly are top priorities.
When new patients call the Duchesne Clinic for appointments, the staff triages their situations to make sure patients with the most dire conditions are seen by someone as quickly as possible.
But the wait time for a new patient for a routine appointment could be up to a few months due to the space constraints.
A facilities committee is analyzing the situation and figuring out the best path for the future, said Amy Falk, executive director of the Caritas Clinics, who scrubbed windows in 1989 as a volunteer preparing the Duchesne Clinic building for its first patients.
Today, as executive director, she loves seeing busy waiting rooms and patients and staff interacting.
“With some of our patients,” said Falk, “it may just make their day because someone here cares about them or held their hand.”
The clinics are also adjusting to ways the Affordable Healthcare Act will impact them.
The ongoing process includes everything from implementing electronic medical records to determining how to move forward if some patients do have some type of insurance.
The need for the care these clinics provide, Falk knows, isn’t going to wane.
She looks to the future with a lot of hope, inspired by a quote from the founder of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth.
“Look forward to the good that is yet to be,” said Mother Xavier Ross, SCL.
“That truly is the attitude we’re taking amidst all of this change,” said Falk.
‘My last hope of getting help’
Connie Brintle, a lifelong Wyandotte County resident, knows both sides of health.
Growing up, she was never ill.
“You think you’re invincible,” she said.
But at age 23, the mother of a then-young son battled cancer for the first time.
She beat cancer of the uterus, but later developed melanoma.
Her third bout? Renal cell carcinoma.
Today, she faces other serious health concerns as well.
“Every day, healthy people ought to realize how blessed they are,” said Brintle. “Too many take it for granted.”
She also knows the difference between having insurance and facing life without.
“There’s a lot of people out there right now who are our age who have worked their whole life and who have lost their jobs and can’t find jobs,” said Brintle.
It wasn’t easy to ask for help, but she doesn’t want anyone to be afraid to take the step she did when she turned to the Duchesne Clinic in Kansas City, Kan.
“This was my last hope for getting help,” she said.
After having a kidney removed a few years ago, she needed renal scans every three months, but had nowhere to go until she found the Duchesne Clinic.
“It’s a comfort when you go for your scans,” she said. “You know that the cancer’s not back. If it wasn’t for that, you wouldn’t know whether you’re OK or you’re not.”
She takes several medications, which the clinic has helped with, and has gotten to know the staff through visits for blood draws.
Brintle lives to see her two grandsons, ages 10 and 5, happy and having fun.
She doesn’t always feel great, but refuses to let it keep her down.
The care she gets is making a big difference in her life, and she hopes others can see that — and contribute to the [Caritas] Clinics if they can.
“No matter how financially [stable] they think they are, they can be in the same shoes we are,” she said. “I had insurance and a good job and everything. I was in their position at one time. They could be right where I am tomorrow.”