12/11/10 — Despite having two clinics, WATCH program still overburdened

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Despite having two clinics, WATCH program still overburdened

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 11, 2010 11:20 PM

The mobile medical clinic introduced in Wayne County 13 years ago to provide health care for the underinsured continues to grow, a reflection of the current economy, organizers say.

At its end-of-year board meeting, Sissy Lee-Elmore, executive director of WATCH, or Wayne Action Teams for Community Health, said the program continues to have more clients than it can handle, even with the addition of a second clinic.

The organization's two locations include the WATCH mobile van, which regularly canvasses the county, and a standing clinic at the Family Y that was added in August of last year.

At the time the second clinic was added, Mrs. Lee-Elmore said, the waiting time for patient appointments was five to six weeks. Adding the second clinic reduced the wait to about a week, she said, but with more uninsured people seeking medical treatment, the waiting time has again become a problem.

"I checked it today and to make a new patient appointment it's two weeks out again," she said.

"We're seeing about 12,000 patients a year, people who do not have access to health care," said James Roosen, the county's health director and the chairman of the WATCH board.

County commissioner and board member Jack Best asked about the employment status of the patients enrolling in the program.

"It's lots of everything -- some are unemployed, a lot of people working two jobs and just can't make ends meet -- it's tough, it's very tough," said Ann King, a nurse practitioner assigned to the mobile van.

The increasing number of clients also represents a growing number of "sicker" people, especially children, Ms. King said.

"(Parents) haven't got them on Medicaid or Health Choice yet, or put it off, thinking they're going to get their jobs or insurance back, so they show up at our door with a bag of empty (prescription) bottles," she said.

Best also inquired about how the program deals with non-English-speaking clients. Ms. King said on occasion a translator has been called upon but oftentimes in the case of Spanish-speaking patients, they may be accompanied by a family member who can translate.

Board member Jimmie Ford suggested that were it not for the existence of the WATCH program, residents would likely be seeking services at the Health Department.

"We're not doing primary care," replied Roosen. "We do have a physician on staff, but he's usually involved in prenatal care. He sees between 750 and 800 women."

At the same time, the program has supplanted at least one area for the Health Department, he said, thanking WATCH staff for agreeing to test patients with potential risk factors for syphilis.

"We have a syphilis epidemic in Wayne County," Roosen said. "We test about 400 people a month for various STDs. Getting that testing outside the Health Department is important because they may never present to us.

"I really appreciate you all testing. It makes a big difference."

Mrs. Lee-Elmore said surveys have been conducted with new patients, asking how they had learned about the WATCH program. A variety of answers are received, she said.

"From the newspaper, their family members, the Health Department sends them over, and a lot of word of mouth," Ms. King said. "I have had a lot of people follow me. They see the truck and ask what we do."

The weakened economy has likely caused more interest in the WATCH program, especially for people who formerly held jobs and had company-paid insurance, suggested board member Sam Hunter.

"These are people that never were concerned about how they could get medical care before," he said.

Ms. King agreed.

"It's just hard times," she said. "I've seen people drive up in a Lexus, or ex-IBM employees that were just laid off. It's tough, it's sad."

Also during the meeting, outgoing board member and former chairman Shirley Sims was recognized for her service.

"She was here since the program began in Wayne County in 1997 and was instrumental in helping us keep our program and most importantly, our teen pregnancy program, going," Mrs. Lee-Elmore said.

Ms. Sims, also active on a number of community boards, including the Wayne County Board of Education, moved to Garner over the summer.

"I was always involved with things that have made sense in my mind," she said.