Samaritan Center unable to reopen medical clinic

The Samaritan Center will not be reopening its health clinic anytime soon.

The clinic, intended to fill gaps in people’s medical needs, closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, over the past two years, as physician schedules and commitments have evolved, it’s been difficult for the center to find physicians who can routinely provide services for a few hours on Thursday nights, Ben DeFeo said, director of center operations.

Fortunately, the number of patients the center serves is down from previous years.

Because it couldn’t get dentists to provide services there, the center stopped taking dental patients about a year before the pandemic hit.

And early in the pandemic, doctors offered to continue seeing patients at the center, but Samaritan Center organizers determined that because many of its clients and volunteers are elderly (and therefore at greater risk of serious illness from COVID-19), it was dangerous to have the building open to the public, DeFeo said.

The center contains two exam rooms, as well as a few dental rooms, where workers can record patients’ blood pressure and “a sort of triage or staging of patients,” when they are open to the public, a- he declared.

“We try to limit the number of people to around 11 people per night,” DeFeo said.

When a certain doctor came, he knew that a certain number of patients would need insulin or some other specific medicine or treatment.

He anticipated the needs of his patients well and was able to serve them quickly.

Some of the other doctors, who might not be as familiar with some of the patients, should spend time familiarizing themselves with the medical history of the patients.

They’re only at the clinic for an hour and a half or two hours, DeFeo said. By the time they go through medical history, much of their time for patients is exhausted. So the clinic tried to limit the number of patients it would take on any given Thursday evening.

“We try to keep the number pretty conservative. Before the Affordable Care Act, you’d see 25 people trying to get in here,” DeFeo said. “With Obamacare, you see the numbers reduced. They had access and coverage.”

Several physicians continue to see patients they have connected with through the center, DeFeo said. Doctors just see them in their offices.

The clinic’s intention was always to serve people who didn’t have coverage, he continued. Despite the Affordable Care Act, many people are underinsured, so the clinic sees many patients for its drug program.

“A lot of our people — with the drug program — are in what you might call a chronic situation,” DeFeo explained.

Patients may suffer from diabetes, heart disease or other chronic illnesses requiring constant medication.

“They’re not going to get better,” DeFeo said. “That (drug program) is complementary for the rest of their life – whether it’s blood pressure, insulin or whatever. The majority of drugs – that’s what it is.

“Through the free drug program, we send people to Whaley’s and buy medicine (for short-term ailments). If they have a prescription, we send them to Whaley’s. All we do is cover the co-payment or the invoice.”

The center pays between $7,000 and $12,000 a month in medication for people.

Still, the center has no doctors on the schedule until the end of the year. Administrators hope to bring doctors back to the clinic at least one Thursday evening per month as soon as possible.

Amber Scheidt, project specialist at the centre, said the majority of patients who come to the center have high blood pressure or diabetes. They follow up with the center for insulin, needles, test strips and monitors.

Dentists are unlikely to return to the center. Many products needed for dental services have a shelf life. So, if the dentists don’t use them quickly, the center has to get rid of them, which leads to losses.

“If we did it again, it would be in a situation where doctors would come in on their own, bringing their own products,” DeFeo said. “When we opened the clinic, there were no doctors in town taking Medicare or Medicaid. Aspen Dental on the boulevard, with a sliding scale, helps with that.”

The center continues to receive phone calls from people seeking dental and medical care, he said. It can’t help with dental care, DeFeo said.

“In the medical case, we just listen to them and see if it’s something we can work around and help – refer them to someone,” he said.

Julie Smith/News Tribune Photo: Amber Scheidt, project specialist at the Samaritan Center, organizes items in the medicine cabinet Tuesday on the medical clinic side of the building. The clinic has been closed due to the pandemic and has not yet resumed operations on a regular basis. For a multitude of reasons, the clinic will be closed until further notice.