Free Clinic enters its 10th year, thanks donors, volunteers

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BENNINGTON — As the Bennington Free Clinic enters its 10th year of serving the community, the need for its services remains great.

When the center was founded in January 2009, about 14 percent of Bennington County's residents had no health insurance. In the years following, that number was reduced to 3 percent. Now, the agency's executive director, Sue Andrews, worries that changes at both the federal and state level will cause that number to rise again. In October, the Trump Administration announced that it would end federal subsidies that helped 13,000 Vermonters.

"It will make it harder and harder for people to use their insurance," said Andrews, who added that as an organization, from the day the clinic opened the hope was always that one day it would no longer be necessary. Now, she said, "we're facing a deluge of new patients."

The Free Clinic, which is operated by Greater Bennington Interfaith Services, "provides free primary medical care for uninsured adult residents of Bennington County and the surrounding area whose incomes are under 400 percent of federal poverty," according to its website. "We do not provide emergency care. We do not provide dental care."The staff of the clinic, which is largely volunteer-based, does far more than just provide medical care to those in need. They also help patients navigate the complicated world of health insurance and medicaid, and when the clinic is unable to provide a particular service, they help connect the patient with another organization that can. Recently, said Andrews, a woman came to the clinic who was paying over $800 a month for insurance on a single income of $11 an hour. The staff at the clinic helped her learn about individual retirement accounts, which helped her reduce her taxable income to the point that she was able to qualify for medicaid.

The clinic in 2014 also began participating in the State of Vermont Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) Program for substance abuse. The SBIRT team at the Free Clinic offers screening to their patients to assess the severity of their substance use, identify the appropriate level of treatment, if any, provide brief intervention focusing on increasing insight and awareness regarding substance use and motivation toward behavioral change, and refer to treatment those patients identified as needing more extensive treatment.

In total over 140 volunteers help to keep the clinic running, including about 40 doctors and nurses who volunteer their time at the clinic, often after working at their own offices during the day. "That's why we're able to do what we do," said Andrews. "We have people with incredible talents working here, but if we had to pay them we couldn't afford them."

However, said Andrews, treating a patient involves more than just their health, and moving forward the clinic hopes to do more to help patients with the social determinants of health, such as housing, nutrition, and lifestyles choices. To that end, volunteers are being trained as facilitators, who will determine, for example, patients' housing status and if they are getting enough to eat, and refer them to other organizations, such as the Kitchen Cupboard, the Bennington County Coalition for the Homeless, or the Bennington Rutland Opportunity Council.

Without its donors and volunteers, Andrews said, none of the Free Clinic's work would have been possible.

Andrews specifically recognized Lillian Sleeman Seward, who recently donated $20,000 to the clinic. Without the help of donors like Seward, said Andrews, the center wouldn't be able do as much as it does for the community. "Every single gift that comes in here is what makes us work," she said. "People like her make all of this possible."

Seward is well known throughout the Bennington community for her generosity to programs such as the Village School of North Bennington and Meals on Wheels. She donated $2.5 million to Bennington Project Independence in memory of her brother, Richard Sleeman, who passed away in 2006. With the money, the organization was able to open the Dr. Richard A. Sleeman Center on Harwood Hill in 2009.

Since GBICS moved into its new home on Depot Street in Bennington, Andrews said, the amount of people who drop by every day is incredible. While the clinic's founders certainly wish that someday the services it offers won't be necessary, Andrews assured that as long as the need exists they will be there. "We plan to be here for the long term," she said.

To learn more about volunteering or about the clinic, or to make a donation, visit benningtoncares.org/bc/bennington-free-clinic or call 802-447-3700 ext. 1 or e-mail bennfreeclinic@gmail.com. The clinic is open on Thursday evenings and some Monday mornings by appointment.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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