Compensating for the soon-to-be shuttered Schenectady Free Health Clinic won’t be easy, but it’s a task the city’s hospital network and health center believe they can accomplish with help from the city’s various human service agencies.
The chief executive officers of both Ellis Medicine and Hometown Health Center are confident they’ll be able to fill the need for care created when the clinic finally dissolves in August. They said the already substantial cooperation between the two entities has helped improve health care delivery for the indigent and working poor.
Still, getting the roughly 2,500 patients who regularly utilize the clinic into mainstream health care programs won’t be easy or seamless. Both Ellis and Hometown Health anticipate a learning curve to follow the clinic’s departure.
“There will be bumps in the road, don’t get me wrong,” Ellis CEO James Connolly said.
But the evolution of Schenectady’s health care system over the past five years should make the transition successful, said Joe Gambino, Hometown’s CEO. And part of that transition will be alerting clinic patients of the options they have available.
“We just want to make sure these folks don’t fall though the cracks,” he said. “We want them to be aware that there are many options available.”
In the short term, Ellis will continue to maintain a presence at the clinic’s location on Franklin Street. The hospital will base its chronic care team — a recently established group of specialists who tend to severely ill Medicaid patients — at the former clinic until its lease expires at the end of October.
Connolly acknowledged the chronic care team won’t keep the hours the clinic did at Franklin Street. Maintaining a presence there, however, should only help former clinic patients transition to a new system of care.
“Certainly it can’t hurt to have a place for patients to come once a week for care if they have a chronic illness,” he said.
Ellis and Hometown will also work with the state Department of Health for guidance during the clinic’s closure. Gambino intends to staff the center with outreach workers, too, so they can decide what health care model is best suited for their needs.
“We want them to know that just because the doors are being closed [at the clinic] doesn’t mean their care is being stopped,” he said. “There are other options.”
Earlier this week, the executive director of the all-volunteer clinic in downtown Schenectady announced it would cease operations this summer due to its inability to secure a reliable source of funding to cover an annual budget of $525,000. Much of the clinic’s budget went to paying for prescription drug expenses.
Founded in 2003, the clinic was once funded through the discretionary budget of the state Health Department’s commissioner. But in 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer eliminated discretionary funding for all state commissioners, leaving the clinic with a crippling $350,000 hole in its budget.
Raising that funding proved to be nearly impossible. With precious few dollars between viability and insolvency, the clinic’s leadership decided its patients would be better served with a well-deliberated transition plan instead of the looming possibility of an abrupt closure.
Schenectady County’s Legislature allocated $50,000 this week to help the clinic cover expenses for about two months, as Ellis and Hometown assist patients in finding new health care providers. The looming closure is prompting a degree of concern among some human service organizations, since the clinic served a centralized intake point that was well utilized by the city’s uninsured population.
“There’s a great concern on our part,” said Rowie Taylor, executive director of the YWCA Northeastern New York. “I feel this is really going to be a sad day for the community.”
Yet Taylor believes the good working dynamic that exists between Ellis and Hometown will help compensate for the closure. She said the crucial step now is to ensure the population served by the clinic knows where to go for care.
“Sometimes the free health clinic has been the initial triage point and that’s what we’re going to have to change,” she said.
City Mission Executive Director Mike Saccocio also lamented the loss of the clinic and its unique mission. Still, he’s optimistic the innovative approach to health care offered by Ellis and Hometown will allow both to absorb the majority of patients left by the closure.
Saccocio credits both organizations for their work with human service agencies to develop innovative ways of delivering health care to segments of the population often neglected. He said that evolution — some of it inspired by the model of care provided by the clinic — should mitigate the impact of the closure.
“It’s not the same community it was 10 years ago when the free health clinic was founded,” he said.
Not that the clinic’s demise will go unnoticed. Saccocio said there are still many people who lack proper health care in the city — a population that’s not likely to diminish in the absence of the clinic.
“I’m not going to say the need [for health care] is all covered, because it wasn’t even with the free health clinic.”