For the past 24 years, the Charlottesville Free Clinic has provided no-cost physicals, prescriptions, mental health services, dental care, and more for the uninsured and underinsured from its Rose Hill Drive facility, which it has long shared with the Thomas Jefferson Health District.
But in May, the Virginia Department of Health announced it was terminating the clinic’s lease, in order to create office space for the additional 25 staff members it planned to hire to do COVID testing, contract tracing, and other pandemic-related jobs. That’s presented a new challenge for the Free Clinic, just as the pandemic accelerates.
While the clinic only had to cover utilities fees—approximately $14,000 a year—at the TJHD office complex, it will now need to pay rent for its new space at the Charlottesville Wellness Center, a medical office complex on Preston Avenue.
“This will be an uptick in our budget significantly. …It’s going to be around $150,000 a year in additional costs,” says Colleen Keller, executive director of the Free Clinic. “And if we can’t get the community to stay behind us and raise the money, it’s going to cost us about $250,000 to move, [since] we have to build a pharmacy and make a few changes to the medical clinic space.”
Throughout the pandemic, the clinic has had to rely on its reserve fund, along with donations from the community, explains Keller. But to stay afloat at its new location, it will need additional funding.
“The health department doesn’t provide us any support at all…The [City of Charlottesville] and [Albemarle County] support us, most significantly for the dental clinic,” she says.
On the upside, the third floor of the Wellness Center is already a fully outfitted medical clinic. And there are two bus stops nearby, making it more convenient for patients without cars. Still, finding room for the clinic’s 400 volunteers takes some finesse.
As the pandemic rages on, Keller expects the clinic to continue serving an increased number of patients. Approximately 15,000 people in Charlottesville and Albemarle do not have health insurance, according to the latest census stats—and that number has undoubtedly risen, as people have lost their jobs.
“We’re really worried about the newly uninsured, so we’re screening people over the phone. You can send us your income information, and we can get you qualified,” she says.
With thousands of vulnerable residents relying on its services, the clinic will not shut down during the moving process, Keller emphasizes. Staff will continue to safely offer select medical and dental care, as well as curbside pharmacy pickup at its Rose Hill Drive location. Many of its other services, like check-ups and counseling, are currently being offered via telehealth, too.
“For the dental clinic, we come to your car for screening, and bring people in one at a time,” says Keller. “We also just started doing flu shots outside.”
The clinic’s new location will open by early December.