By Alexander Germanis
Many are familiar with the adage that it takes a village to raise a child. While it may not be an idiom to be taken literally, the belief that many hands are necessary to help someone properly develop can be very true.
The same sentiment can hold true when it comes to healing a person or maintaining their overall wellness, particularly in an environment where healthcare can be cost prohibitive to many people.
The staff and volunteers at the Community Health Care Clinic are not only living proof that the ‘village’ approach to helping the individual works, but it is also at the very core of everything they do.
The More Things Change
Twenty-eight years ago, the Community Health Care Clinic (CHCC) in Normal opened its doors with a singular purpose: to be a place where the uninsured and underinsured could receive ongoing care. As the emergency room is the least effective and most expensive way to receive such care, the medical directors and emergency room physicians of both hospitals in Bloomington-Normal, as well as other local healthcare minds, came together with this purpose in mind.
“It was a new idea,” says CHCC Executive Director Mike Romagnoli. “There weren’t a lot of free clinics here or nationally, but once the idea solidified, they set about recruiting volunteers.”
On the clinic’s first night of operation, March 1994, the volunteers expected a crush of patients. They saw only one.
Their patient numbers have since grown substantially—from that one patient the first night to now about 1350 unique patients every year.
The number they serve is not the only thing that’s changed and grown over the year. “As a non-profit, we’ve evolved tremendously in the services we provide,” Mike says. “We have more exam rooms, a large medication dispensary space, a bigger waiting room, and we added a big conference room with a kitchen in it for cooking classes. We also have full comprehensive dental services on-site as well.”
Of course, to house those new services, CHCC needed a new facility. Gone is their original 2400 square foot office. In 2016, they ran a capital campaign enabling them to make the upgrade to their new 11,000 square foot facility.
“The scope of our services and the size of our building has changed a lot, but we’re still seeing those same people,” Mike assures. “And the hospital is still our number one place for referrals for those who need a place to go after they’ve been to the ER or hospitalized for ongoing care. Our mission has not changed.”
From All Walks
Any community clinic, particularly CHCC, cannot function without the constant effort of volunteers. Among the many in the healthcare community, these men and woman stand above the rest. In some cases, quite literally.
A gentle giant of a man, Mike towers a staggering six feet and nine inches tall. With his bushy beard and imposing stature, he looks more the part of a mountain man than the director of a community healthcare clinic. But he comes by his position through his initial volunteer efforts as a graduate student at Illinois State University.
“In the fall of 2004 I attended ISU to pursue my master’s degree in Spanish,” Mike recalls. “In a master’s level linguistics class my first semester, one requirement was six hours volunteer work translating somewhere in town. When I started here at the clinic there was a bilingual physician who had been volunteering but once I started, he never came back. I think it was a good out for him knowing there was somebody else around. But I really enjoyed it and kept coming back.”
It wasn’t long before Mike was spending more time at the clinic than at school. Quickly vanished Mike’s initial dreams of becoming a Spanish professor as he progressed from translator to pharmacy technician, to front desk operator, to operations manager. Now, 18 years later, Mike sits at the director’s desk and Spanish comes as easily to him as English.
With 77 percent of CHCC patients being native Spanish speakers, Mike’s language skills are a necessity. Seven other staff members also speak the language. “We recruit students heavily as well,” Mike reveals. “We’re a great opportunity for students to come and get exposure.”
Without that continued support from volunteers in the community, CHCC would falter. Mike, two nurse practitioners, and the other 10 staff members are constantly supported by those willing to lend their personal healthcare expertise. “Anyone with an ‘MD’ behind their name is a volunteer,” Mike states. “We’ve had fantastic involvement from our community with volunteer doctors. We’ve got over 150 specialists and nearly 30 primary care docs who see our patients. Both hospitals are incredible for all our labs, diagnostics, surgeries, emergency rooms, prompt cares. Without the hospitals we’d be dead in the water.”
The Need Is Great
Even though the first night of operation saw only one patient, CHCC’s presence has only become more and more necessary. Within the McLean County geographical boundary, the clinic serves the uninsured and underinsured who live 185 percent below the poverty line. “The vast majority of our patients are working, but they are working in jobs that either don’t offer insurance or they’re above the ceiling to qualify for Medicaid,” Mike explains. “So, they’re kind of in that gray area where the insurance offered is not affordable to use.”
This gray area is a new group of people created by the Affordable Care Act. They are offered super low premiums but insanely high deductibles, meaning their insurance is easy to purchase but practically impossible to actually use. “They can opt into a plan but would have less access with insurance,” Mike confirms. “It seems weird to say, but that’s the reality of it. It’s unfortunate and it’s a disservice to the patient.” Before the passage of the act, one either qualified for Medicare or Medicaid or one did not.
Having no healthcare is not an option at the CHCC. “We’re intense about providing healthcare. I always joke: You’ll get better whether you like it or not,” Mike chuckles. “That’s kind of our motto. If a patient voices that if they get insurance, they won’t be able to go to the doctor anymore because they won’t be able to afford it, we won’t let that happen.”
Medication only complicates things. With so many in the area with high blood pressure and diabetes, medical care is not limited to mere visits to the doctor. The expense of medication is very real so the need for help is just as real.
Stewards of the Future
Community health centers are as much a necessity now as ever before, so it is comforting to know there are those willing to keep them in operation. But the needs of the community are myriad and, therefore, so are the solutions.
Mike sees the CHCC becoming more involved in social work and managing mental health as well as what they already handle. “Without the ability to manage behavioral health, chronic diseases are incredibly difficult to navigate,” he says.
They will continue navigating both with volunteer help and the financial support of the community. Proudly receiving zero federal funding, the CHCC operates entirely upon the generosity of donors from the area. Every spring, either in the last week of April or the first week of May, the CHCC holds a luncheon to generate those funds. Although this year’s luncheon has passed, it is never too late to contribute. “We are great stewards of that resource,” Mike assures, “and we manage it well.”
Mike and all those who work at The Community Health Care Clinic know how important their relationship with the community is. In order to serve the community, they need help from the community. Part of what makes the CHCC great is how they were founded and who founded them. The clinic was then, as it is now, the right people coming together at the right time to help those in need.
To learn more about the Community Health Care Clinic and how to support their mission, visit their website at www.chcchealth.org
or email [email protected]
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