Charlottesville’s free clinic celebrates 20 years

Charlottesville’s free clinic celebrates 20 years

With the presidential election on the horizon and the Affordable Care Act still up for debate, health care is on the minds of voters across the country. But regardless of who takes office and what reforms stick, the Charlottesville Free Clinic, which turned 20 this year, plans to be around for a while.

Nobody expected the clinic to last this long, said Executive Director Erika Viccellio. When it was founded by two UVA medical residents in 1992, it was intended to be a temporary fix for those without access to affordable health care. But despite health care changes on the federal level, the Charlottesville Free Clinic still provides care for the uninsured, with the help of 15 paid employees, over 500 volunteers, and 1,300 donors. About 3,300 people—nearly all of them adults who don’t qualify for programs targeting children, the elderly, or those below the poverty line —make more than 9,000 visits yearly.

Viccellio said some people label the care the clinic offers a “handout,” and she wants to educate the community to eliminate the negative connotations. Eligible patients are usually employed—often with multiple part-time jobs—and can neither access insurance through work nor afford to pay for an individual policy, which can cost up to $5,000 a year. She wants people to know that the clinic’s patients aren’t simply opting out of paying for health care.

“These are people who are working hard and doing everything that makes Charlottesville fantastic, so the least we can do is make sure they’re healthy,” Viccellio said.

Julie Wright has been seeing doctors at the free clinic for over a year because her full-time job doesn’t offer health insurance. Purchasing her own plan would run her about $800 a month, which she said she simply cannot afford.

When asked about the current state of health care and its future, Wright shrugged.

“I don’t think it can get any worse,” she said.

Carolyn Engelhard, an assistant professor at UVA and chair of the Free Clinic Board, said no matter what happens in November, some working Americans will still be left behind. Those who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but can’t afford insurance still deserve quality care, she said, and shouldn’t have to rely on emergency rooms.

“There are always going to be people who fall through the cracks,” she said. “We have fabulous doctors, hospitals, great innovation, discovery, and research. There’s no place you’d rather be when you’re really sick than the U.S., but we have this really big problem with not being able to offer it to everybody.” Even if the Affordable Care Act continues to move forward, she said, free clinics and other safety net organizations will always be necessary.

To mark its 20th anniversary, the Charlottesville Free Clinic will host an open house Friday, September 28, and it’s encouraging prospective patients, volunteers, and donors to attend.

Despite two decades of success, Viccellio said she’d like to see a day when the clinic is no longer needed.

“I would like to say with confidence that it will be closed in another 20 years,” Viccellio said. “But unfortunately, the likelihood is slim.”