Hope Medical Clinic in Destin, Freeport gives health care to the uninsured

This story has been updated to correct the name of Hope Medical Clinic Executive Director Tim Roberts.

The Destin area is renowned for its beautiful beaches and booming tourist economy.

But for many service and hospitality workers who help fuel the economy, getting health care can be difficult.

In Okaloosa and Walton counties, more than 80,000 people are uninsured, and free, charity clinics are the only place where they can receive proper medical treatment without incurring huge financial costs.

There is a local organization they can turn to, but that organization is looking for partners to help meet the needs.

The Hope Medical Clinic in Destin and Freeport has a mission to provide “accessible, quality health care to the uninsured and medically underserved populations of Okaloosa and Walton Counties.” The clinics provided free primary, specialty and pharmaceutical treatment to more than 5,000 uninsured patients during the past fiscal year.

Volunteer doctor Dr William Liston talks to Cora Sternberg, nurse in charge of operations at the HOPE medical clinic in Destin.  HOPE Medical Clinic has approximately 5,000 active patients served from offices in Destin and Freeport.

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In the clinic’s last fiscal year, Hope Medical Clinic distributed $1.8 million in free medication, $6 million in care, and performed 911 surgeries.

“We are concerned that our community is not aware of what is happening here and the role we play in keeping this community healthier,” said Tim Roberts, the clinic’s executive director. “When you think about 5,000 patients receiving the type of care they receive here, that’s a significant workforce that receives their health care from our clinic. If we weren’t here, it would be lots of people flooding the ER and urgent care.”

Walton and Okaloosa counties do not fund any of the Hope Medical Clinic locations because the counties do not classify the areas as “rural”. Florida counties designated as “rural” generally fund free, charitable clinics, while clinics in “non-rural” counties receive no funding.

From left, HOPE Medical Clinic staff Layne Britton, Genesis Martinez, Catherine Castillo and Anna Dawson work on patient cases at the Destin Clinic.  HOPE Medical Clinic has over 50 volunteers from the medical profession, who help provide care to those in need from clinic offices in Destin and Freeport.

Funding for both sites comes primarily from federal grants and programs that are often program specific. For example, the Health Resources and Services Administration is currently providing 700 COVID-19 vaccines to insured and uninsured people along with a $50 Walmart gift card with each vaccination.

The clinic also partners with pharmaceutical companies to prescribe free hepatitis C medications, which cost around $1,000 per pill.

While these forms of funding go a long way toward certain components of the clinic, Roberts said the clinic needs more donors and local foundations to join their donor base to cover broader programs.

“We want to make sure the community is aware of what’s going on so we can partner appropriately with county or hospital programs,” Roberts said.

The setbacks of a tourist economy

Alicia Jannethe Zuniga, who works in the restaurant industry, has been a patient at Hope Medical Clinic for seven years.

“The clinic is one of the best things she’s ever found, especially because it’s uninsured,” Zuniga said through a clinic translator. “If her friend hadn’t told her about the clinic, she would never have found out about what the community does and how free clinics enable others to receive free health care.”

The HOPE Medical Clinic has its own pharmacy and a volunteer pharmacist to ensure that patients get the medications they need when they leave the clinic.

Dr. William Liston, co-medical director, board member and retired trauma surgeon, has worked at the clinic for five years, answering questions from nurse practitioners and seeing patients.

Working primarily at the Destin branch, Liston describes the unique socio-medical situation he encountered with the clinic’s patients.

“Even though we’re in a very wealthy area, there’s a huge population of people who aren’t particularly well served,” Liston said.

While the clinic welcomes patients from various regions, 19% of patients come from Destin and 37% from Fort Walton Beach. The provider largely serves working, uninsured patients who typically occupy tourist and seasonal services that do not provide medical insurance.

Undocumented people are treated without any changes to standard procedures, unless service is needed from a partnership that cannot serve undocumented people. Even when they encounter these obstacles, the clinic will continue to treat the patient to the best of their abilities.

A health center for the community

Roberts and his team believe the clinic is more than just a provider of basic medical needs.

“We define ourselves as a health care home versus a primary care home. We help people through the whole process,” Roberts said.

The Destin and Freeport locations contain a licensed pharmacy and lab that performs basic blood work, pregnancy tests, and drug tests. There are 35 specialized volunteers in the clinics which provide services in oncology, dermatology, orthopedics and more.

Volunteer doctor Dr William Liston talks to Cora Sternberg, nurse in charge of operations at the HOPE medical clinic in Destin.  HOPE Medical Clinic has approximately 5,000 active patients served from offices in Destin and Freeport.

Roberts said the 10-minute appointment standard at most free clinics is not suitable for the patients they treat. Instead, they go for 30-45 minute appointments.

One-third of Hope Medical Clinic’s practice treats comorbid cases or patients with multiple life-threatening conditions such as congestive heart failure or diabetes. All patients are screened for exposure to trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse and neglect, due to studies showing that those exposed to severe trauma have a shorter life expectancy.

The clinic uses an interdisciplinary team approach to treat cases of comorbidity. For example, counsellors, social workers and behavioral health experts work with the primary care team and nurse case managers to deal with very complex cases.

Nurse case managers are a key part of networking with different services within the community. Current partnerships and sponsors include Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital, Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, Cadyceus Society on the Emerald Coast, Americares Medical Outreach and more.

Volunteer Catherine Castillo, Licensed Practical Nurse, takes the vital signs of patient Alicia Zuniga at the HOPE Medical Clinic in Destin.

Hope Medical Clinic provides treatment to all uninsured individuals and individuals whose individual income is less than 200% above the federal poverty level.

If a patient is eligible for Medicaid or Medicare, the clinic will help the individual apply and treat the patient until the application is approved.

The Destin branch of Hope Medical Clinic is located at 150 Beach Drive in Destin and is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The Freeport branch is located at 16019 US Highway 331, Business Unit #10 in Freeport and is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.

For more information, visit www.hopemedclinic.org.