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Charlottesville Free Clinic to seek new home; Department of Health to expand staffCharlottesville Free Clinic continuing operations during COVID-19 crisis to keep non-emergency patients out of hospitals

Charlottesville’s Free Clinic will be moving into a new location before the year’s end. 

In June, the clinic was notified that it would need to seek new operating space as the Thomas Jefferson Health District’s offices are expanding in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The clinic isn’t venturing far though. It plans to relocate to 901 Preston Ave., just blocks from its current 1138 Rose Hill Drive location.

As the free clinic was searching for a new building, accessibility and price were two concerns, Executive Director Colleen Keller said. The move will not come to any major detriment to some of the uninsured patients who rely on public transportation to access it because it is near Charlottesville Area Transit bus stops. 

According to  Dr. Denise Bonds, the health director for the Health District, the agency is looking to hire about 25 new staff members for testing, contact tracing and case investigation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As TJHD is part of the Virginia Department of Health, it is mandated to provide testing, tracing and conduct investigations, as well as administer any vaccine that could be developed in the future. 

“Because we are viewing the pandemic as really a marathon rather than a sprint, we are anticipating needing a sustained response,” Bonds said.  “But at the same time, we have to allow regular staff to go back to regular jobs. We have allowed the free clinic to have free access to a portion of our office space, and regretfully, we need to use that space now.” 

After operating rent free in its location for 24 years, the clinic will now be leasing space going forward — something Keller said could add at least $130,000 per year to its operating costs. 

The new facilities will be in the same building as Charlottesville Wellness Center Family Practice. The space already is equipped with infrastructure conducive to the free clinic, which will operate its clinic and administrative offices on the third floor. Its pharmacy will be on the first floor. Martin Horn Construction has been attached to the renovation project to build out the pharmacy.

The clinic — which, along with its no-cost pharmacy and free medical care, also provides mental health services — will keep its dental clinic in the TJHD building until at least 2022. 

According to Keller, the infrastructure required would be too costly to move right away and VDH headquarters in Richmond coordinated with TJHD and the free clinic to work out the dental clinic staying put for now. 

Additionally, state-level aid will bolster funding for free clinics around the state. 

Earlier this month, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that $3 million of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding would be allocated specifically to free clinics. Details are being worked out, but Keller anticipates about $40,000 could go to Charlottesville’s clinic. 

“Our free clinics are a critical part of our health safety net, providing care for those with no insurance,” Northam said in a press release. “Thousands of Virginians access health care through free clinics, and I am glad we can help support those clinics’ needs at this time. This global health crisis truly demonstrates how important it is that everyone has access to health care.”

Keller said the funding will be helpful as she anticipates spending of about $60,000 on personal protective equipment needs alone. She is grateful for the advocacy of the Virginia Association of Free Clinics to support their role in public health and a community resource for the uninsured.

“If you think about it, when this all started, if you called to get a COVID test, what happened? They told you to call your doctor. But anybody who is uninsured doesn’t have a doctor,” Keller said. “Had we not had free clinics open and running, people had no way.” 

Keller explained that the clinic partnered with University of Virginia Medical Center’s Riverside clinic to refer people for COVID tests as needed.

“I think, in the beginning, it was not clearly perceived how much free clinics were in this system of a pandemic response,” Keller added.  “I feel like now that’s changing.”