For Cindy Belender, it was the path to a prescription that put an end to years of stomach pain. For Joshua Martyn, it was a simpler post-accident option that averted surgery on his hand – and a hefty pile of debt.
For those two Bend residents, and more than 1,000 other Central Oregonians unable to afford or get health insurance, the 8-month-old Volunteers in Medicine Clinic of the Cascades has proven to be a godsend – a way to get (or stay) well that simply wasn’t available before.
In a sense, the clinic offers a service much like the laudable work done by the many volunteers for Habitat for Humanity. While some, looking at the huge problem of affordable housing, might call the relative handful of Habitat homes only a drop in the proverbial bucket, those involved are busy providing an answer, rather than sit around and wait for “the” answer to emerge (if it ever does).
And so it is with the daunting issue of skyrocketing health care costs and the response given quietly each day at the clinic (www.vim-cascades.org). It held an open house Wednesday so the public could tour the non-profit facility that opened last spring on the southwest corner of the St. Charles Medical Center-Bend campus, at 2300 NE Neff Road.
More than 250 volunteers, from doctors and nurses to lab techs, mental health counselors and interpreters (as well as lay volunteers) are donating about 2,000 hours a month. Since the clinic opened in April, more than 1,800 patient visits have taken place, and 2,400 medications dispensed to VIM patients. About 100 patients also have received dental care, through a partnership with local dentists and the Northwest Medical Teams’ dental van.
The brisk business at the clinic is a double-edged sword, of course. With recent cuts to the Oregon Health Plan, many low-income families are losing their benefits, said Christine Winters, the clinic’s executive director.
“That, coupled with the fact that many businesses cannot afford to offer health benefits to their employees, (means) we have over 12,000 low-income people in Deschutes County without access to affordable health care,” Winters said.
The open house also was a means to introduce the clinic to potential patients and supporters, as it seeks to raise more of the funds needed for facility maintenance, office and medical supplies and staff. “In addition to the many in-kind donations made by the medical and business community, we need to raise $500,000 a year to keep the clinic going,” Winters said.
To be eligible for medical care at VIM, applicants must be a county resident, uninsured, ineligible for the Oregon Health Plan or Medicare, and have a household income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Once screening is done, patients typically can see a doctor within a week. While the visit with doctor and nurse is free, patients are asked to contribute toward the cost of lab tests, X-rays and medications. (To schedule a screening appointment, call the clinic at 330-9001).
Stomach pain gone, life restored
Cindy Belender, 22, was a bit surprised and overwhelmed to learn she was patient No. 1,000 a few weeks ago. Raised in Hood River, she worked as a nanny in the San Francisco area for a year, moving to Bend last August with her boyfriend. She works full-time at the Shilo Inn front desk, and is taking nursing courses at Central Oregon Community College.
She found out about the clinic from the Deschutes County Health Department.
“I’ve had stomach problems for several years, and have never really been diagnosed with anything,” Belender said. “I have had doctors tell me they think it’s an ulcer, this or that.”
“I’ve had this problem since I was a freshman in high school,” she said. “It got really bad at times. I’ve missed work and school before.”
But she also dreaded the idea of facing a big hospital bill, recalling how she was assaulted by a stranger a couple of years ago in Salem and told paramedics she didn’t want to go to the hospital, refusing an ambulance ride and going on her own to have a possible concussion checked. Belender said she applied years ago to get on the Oregon Health Plan and “never heard anything back – and now they’re not accepting applications.”
But then along came the VIM Clinic, where a doctor gave her the answer she had been seeking. “He said my stomach produces too much acid,” she said. “I never thought of that, because I never had heartburn. I guess all the acid sits in my stomach.”
The clinic doctor prescribed Prevacid, which has given Belender a new lease on life, in just a few short weeks.
“I think that place is great,” she said. “I’ve been so happy, ever since I’ve been there. My stomach hurt every single day. It was getting so bad, when I would eat anything, I’d feel sick. Now, I feel like I can eat – I feel fine, I have energy.”
Patient No. 1,000 actually represents the type of person the clinic has seen in its initial months, said Robyn Holdman, VIM’s development director. More than 60 percent of the patients are 40 or younger (and almost a third are 30 or younger), more than one-third are single, and more than 60 percent are women.
Almost two-thirds of the clinics 1,025 eligible patients hail from Bend, while more than 13 percent are from Redmond, almost 8 percent are from La Pine and about 2.5 percent are from the Sisters area. Almost 18 percent are Hispanic.
Surprisingly to some, the most diagnosed ailment has been depression, followed by hypertension, diabetes, low back pain and anxiety.
Hand heals, big bill avoided
None of those problems are what brought Joshua Martyn calling. The 30-year-old husband and father of two, a Website developer (www.virtualnative.com), “sliced my right hand open” atop the knuckles in an accident in his garage about six weeks ago.
The self-employed COCC graduate had cut three tendons, completely severing the tendon on his ring finger, which he couldn’t move. Like many with or without insurance – “I never get sick,” he said – Martyn rushed to the St. Charles Medical Center emergency room for treatment.
“While I was in there, they were looking at it, testing it, having me apply pressure – that’s when it really struck home,” Martyn said. “I did not have health insurance – it (medical expenses) all went to my credit cards. It really struck home when I learned I needed to have surgery.”
“The ER doctor didn’t have the comfort level or whatnot to sew up the tendon, so he said he was sending me to a specialist,” he recalled – and dollar signs started swimming in his head.
Then Martyn remembered reading an article about VIM, “so I thought I would see if I would qualify. I called them up, asked what I needed. I took in three months of income” records, and soon had an appointment – “quicker then I did for a specialist.”
“Ultimately, what I was after was consultation, more information, without having to pay $300 a visit for (a doctor) talking to me,” Martyn said. “My wife does work – it (a big bill) wasn’t going to be the end of the world, but definitely a huge setback.”
Martyn said clinic volunteer Dr. David Thayer told him he had “a couple different options – one the surgical route, which they (the clinic) don’t do, and the second, based on where the tendon was cut, there was a very good chance the tendons would reattach themselves. I showed him exactly where the cut happened, and I chose to go down the non-surgical option.”
The doctor braced Martyn’s hand open seven weeks ago, and it was in the brace for four weeks. He was “basically out of commission” for about a month, in terms of using his right hand. But in the end, things turned out well.
“My tendons did reattach without surgery,” he said. “It completely healed back up, amazingly enough, without surgery.” Martyn is sure a surgeon would have recommended the surgery, to guarantee healing.
“I can’t say enough good about VIM,” Martyn said. “All those people are wonderful. They gave me great advice, treated me. They braced me, removed my stitches.”
“They are very friendly people,” he added. “They volunteer their time, without pay, to go and help other people. … One thing I really appreciate about VIM is they provided me an opportunity to move forward, rather than backward. The (surgery) bills would have been about $8,000, which would have gone on my credit card, which would have set me back further” on paying for health insurance for himself and his wife.
Also, Martyn said, “Not only did they give me a little boost, to get out of the position I was in, so I’m able to recover from it, but dealing with all those super people over there encouraged me to volunteer to work” on the clinic’s Website. “I did donate money, what I could afford, to the organization” as well, said Martyn, who in the past has worked at a hospice with dying patients and helped the disabled go skiing.
“This really re-harvested that sense (of volunteerism) in me,” Martyn said.