HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — What began two decades ago on Hilton Head Island as a free clinic using retired physicians and volunteers to care for the working poor has become a model for dozens of similar clinics nationwide. At a time when the nation debates how to pay for care, there are now 96 Volunteers in Medicine Clinics in 29 states.
Thousands of people can be thankful for the network of free clinics nationwide that grew from a model developed in 1994 on this resort by Dr. Jack McConnell in 1994.
The Hilton Head clinic has grown to handle more than 33,000 patient visits a year and offers services that include, among others, dental and eye care and mental health treatment and family practice. Nationally, the network of Volunteers in Medicine clinics had an estimated 400,000 patient visits last year. The new wrinkle in the network is the Affordable Care Act, and even though most patients the clinics treat still wouldn’t be able to afford insurance under the law, those who may think of starting their own clinic may wait until the overall effect is better known, said Amy Hamlin, the executive director of the national Volunteers in Medicine based in Burlington, Vt.
Some clinics, like that on Hilton Head use primarily retired physicians. Others are staffed by doctors still in practice who donate their time. All use volunteers for everything from keeping records to cleaning up and raising donations to keep the clinics operating.
“It’s really remarkable what they are able to do without any government funding and using volunteers,” Hamlin said.
Each clinic is independent but the national group offers help to those who want to start one. It also provides a network where clinics can exchange ideas on everything from getting donated medical supplies to attracting physicians and volunteers.