Schenectady County

Schenectady Free Health Clinic to close

Faced with almost insurmountable fundraising demands, the Schenectady Free Health Clinic will close

Faced with almost insurmountable fundraising demands, the Schenectady Free Health Clinic will close down this summer and transfer all 2,500 of its patients to other local providers.

Executive Director William Spolyar said the clinic has constantly struggled to meet its $525,000 annual operating cost — most of which goes to pay for prescription drug expenses — ever since state grant funding dried up in 2007. Now, the patchwork of grant funding and donations just barely covers the clinic’s operation costs, meaning it’s almost always on the brink of insolvency.

“You hate to say you can’t do it, but you get to the point of saying what’s good for the patient,” he said.

The Franklin Street clinic will now use $50,000 from Schenectady County to fund a two-month transition period, where patients are moved to Ellis Medicine, Hometown Health Centers or a provider of their choice. Spolyar said both Hometown Health and Ellis have hardship programs for low-income and indigent patients, meaning most people now relying on the clinic will see minimal change how their care is provided.

“Our commitment is really to take care of these patients,” said Paul Milton, the chief operating officer at Ellis. “I think we owe it to the county.”

Opened in 2003, the clinic has served more than 12,000 patients who have relied on it for roughly 40,000 visits. Patients receiving care from the all-volunteer clinic needed to live in Schenectady County and be without health insurance.

The clinic was previously funded largely through a discretionary fund overseen by the state health commissioner. But Gov. Eliot Spitzer eliminated such funding for all state agencies in 2007, leaving the clinic with a $350,000 budgetary shortfall.

The sudden drop left the clinic in a quandary. Its volunteer physicians and nurses still served thousands of patients without adequate health insurance, but saw all the funding for medication suddenly evaporate.

Since the elimination of its state funding, the clinic has relied on a patchwork of member-item grants from local legislators and large gifts from area corporations. But with no continuous stream of funding, the clinic struggled to meet its fundraising goal every year.

“We start from ground zero on July 1,” Spolyar said.

Spolyar said getting donations also proved to be difficult amid the economic downturn. When the stock market went south, so did donations from private foundations, Spolyar said.

And then came the federal sequester. With fewer federal dollars to be spread around, more human service agencies started canvassing for donations.

“They’re out there beating on the same bush we’re beating on for those dollars,” he said.

Spolyar said the expansion of Child Health Plus, Family Health Plus, Medicaid eligibility and other forthcoming changes through federal health care reform made the time right to make the transition. He said patients will now be brought into a health care network that will be more static than the patchwork of volunteers provided by the clinic.

The county funding will help cover the clinic’s expenses over the next 60 days. For Spolyar, the beginning of the end is bittersweet, but one that was inevitable because of the fiscal realities the clinic has faced for more than five years.

“I’m certainly sitting here with my head held high for what we’ve accomplished,” he said.

Mardy Moore, one of the clinic’s founders, echoed this sentiment. She said the success of the clinic over the past decade was only made possible by a tireless commitment from its volunteers.

“The clinic, through the vision of its founders, has provided access to free health care at a time when the existing health care system did not have the capacity to address the full scope of the needs of the uninsured,” she said.

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