Free ‘safety-net’ clinics reap grants


Representatives from some of the free medical clinics in West Michigan are all smiles after receiving grants from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. Photo by Rachel Weick

A grant program designed to increase access to quality health care for the uninsured is reinforcing the safety net by providing financial support to medical clinics across the state.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan announced recently it is providing more than 50 free medical clinics across the state with $15,000 through the 10th annual distribution of the Strengthening the Safety Net grant program.

Four Grand Rapids clinics were among those to receive $15,000 to support daily operations to further enhance and provide health care access for the uninsured or underinsured in the community. The four Grand Rapids-based clinics were Oasis of Hope Center, Health Intervention Services, Catherine’s Health Center and Baxter Community Center.

Melanie Beelen, executive director of Baxter Community Center, said the funding allows the center to sustain and grow its current services.

“I think a lot of times people misunderstand what it means to have a medical home. Our community center is just one pillar of our four programs,” said Beelen. “For Baxter, to not have a clinic would be to eliminate that piece of a person’s whole person. The Blues, being involved in this, directly and indirectly affects the whole person.”

Baxter Community Center provides integrated care for community members through its four programs: Child Development Center, Marketplace, Mizizi Maji Mentoring and Wholistic Health Clinic. Through its health care clinic Baxter provides pediatric, adult care, vision, dental and counseling services, and programs for women and children.

“When you talk about integrated care — which is a term used a lot when working with people in the community — it is not, how do you just address one need, but how does that need, that thread, tie together with other needs they have,” said Beelen.

“We have about 1,300 people that we helped last year, and out of that group probably 60 percent have incomes of $5,000 or less, so true access to health care wouldn’t be happening.”

Health Intervention Services has a similar comprehensive and integrated approach providing a range of services for Grand Rapids and Kent County residents. Some of the medical, dental, counseling and spiritual services include family practice, internal medicine, gynecology, physical therapy, oral surgery, psychological counseling, social work case management and interpretation services.

Sylvia Daining, president of Health Intervention Services, said a majority of the clinic’s patients are Spanish speakers, or immigrants who have been in the country for less than five years and don’t qualify for many benefits or programs.

“There are just a lot of people who can’t afford the policies that are offered to them. There are a lot of people who still need help,” said Daining. “It is pretty significant for people to have a medical home that does everything in one spot … that provides a safe place for them to be. I think that is what we are for people. It is a privilege to be able to provide that.”

Although most grant programs are allocated for a specific project or purpose, funding provided by BCBSM enables clinics to have unrestricted dollars designated to clinic support, which is how many are able to keep their doors open, according to Beelen.

“Most places, you can’t just get a grant for supporting operations. People can come up with fancy projects and they can’t sustain it because all the money came in and you still have to continue to fund it,” said Beelen. “For us … it is kind of like an anchor in a community. You need those anchor businesses to keep the community vital. The Blues are that anchor business.”

This year’s funding for Health Intervention Services will go toward implementing electronic medical records and incorporating Medicaid, according to Daining.

“Our money is going to help fund that transition and how we are managing all of that — getting people trained and dealing with all the new things related to that. It is an amazing and very time-consuming, challenging process, but we are walking into it,” said Daining. “Last year we used it to help patients enroll in ACA or Medicaid, or just to process that whole Affordable Care Act system and the (insurance) marketplace.”

Originally developed in 2005 to provide financial assistance to medical clinics providing free health care services, BCBSM has allocated more than $10 million to support safety net providers across the state since its establishment, resulting in more than 60,000 patients receiving care annually, according to a written statement.

Kim Kratz, senior health care analyst at BCBSM, said the Strengthening the Safety Net program developed out of the organization’s mission to ensure every person in the state has access to high-quality health care.

“The environment is changing, and the safety net providers have been a critical part of the change and are essential, I think, to people who are becoming insured and the people who are newly insured,” said Kratz. “So these safety net clinics have been at the forefront of helping people enroll in new coverage options and they also are providing care for folks who are newly insured, as well as the uninsured.”

Recognizing that funding and resources for the clinics come from a variety of donors and volunteers, Kratz said the program is a way to congratulate and thank those who provide care to the underinsured and uninsured in communities across the state.

“Blue Cross is the largest donor to Michigan free clinics and has been, historically. We are very proud of that and excited about those partnerships,” said Kratz. “We are awarding these grants and congratulating the recipients, but also, as we are doing this, thanking the people who provide care to the underserved for the care they provide, which is not easy to do, and also for the partnership with Blues.”

The annual disbursement of funds is important not only in terms of financial support but also due to its reliability over the years, according to Daining.

“I think the consistency is such a gift,” said Daining. “It is real significant whenever you have donors who continually, each year, step up and stand by you in the work you are doing. It makes a great difference.”

Other West Michigan clinics that received funding include: Renew Hope Health Clinic, Allegan; Hope House Free Medical Clinic, Big Rapids; Love in the Name of Christ Free Health Clinic, Grand Haven; Holland Free Health Clinic, Holland; and City on a Hill Health Clinic, Zeeland.

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