After 28 years of providing free health care to uninsured individuals in Bedford County, the Bedford Christian Free Clinic is closing its doors.
The closure was announced last week.
“The driving force behind the closure was the exodus of our patients to the state-expanded Medicaid program,” said Don Craighead Jr., executive director of the faith-based free clinic for the past 22 years. “As our numbers began decreasing, we were trying to evaluate what we needed to do.”
The clinic has seen an 85% drop in new patient registrations and visits in recent months.
“We’re down to under 10 patients right now,” said Bill Jackson, a board member who has served for the last nine years.
Medicaid patients are attending other places for their health care, such as the Bedford Community Health Center, a division of the Johnson Health Center, Craighead said.
“They’re able to have more immediate care with specialty care referrals and so forth, and we’re able to see them getting coverage that was not possible back in 1992 when we first opened. We’re happy for these folks,” Craighead said.
The free clinic was originally launched with the help of 12 Bedford-area churches, a multi-denominational group.
The small clinic, staffed by volunteers and open for appointments two days per week, would have been hard pressed to meet federal regulations to become Medicaid eligible.
“We just could not foresee being able to become Medicaid-compliant,” Craighead said. “It would have involved an investment of several hundred thousand dollars, really. We would almost have to guarantee being available to have 24/7 services. We would have to upgrade equipment. We would have to hire additional staff.”
Sparse staffing was another contributing factor in the decision to close the clinic.
Craighead said over the years, it has been difficult to keep adequate volunteer staffing. Currently, there are about eight regular volunteers, comprised of doctors, nurse practitioners and administrative personnel. Some volunteer medical professionals are retirees, Craighead said.
Virginia and Kenneth Thelan, of Franklin County, a husband-and-wife team of MDs who have worked together throughout their careers, have spent the past several years post- retirement volunteering at the free clinic.
“I wanted to do something beneficial and not totally leave medicine,” Virginia said. “We’ve always been interested in helping patients who didn’t have insurance. I think that it’s always important to get to know people you deal with, especially for patients. I don’t want my patients to feel that they’re looked at as a number but as a living person who has a personality and needs, and see what I can do to help them out.”
The Thelans said the clinic dynamic with patients and fellow volunteers was like a family. Though they will miss it, they said they treasured their time there.
The clinic’s building lease at its 104 Center St. location is nearly up, Craighead and Jackson said.
The free clinic has had working partnerships with other Bedford health care institutions and clinics over the years, including Bedford Memorial Hospital and Centra Health’s offices there, and Johnson Health Center. It has also worked with the county’s social services department.
Notices of the coming closure were sent to current patients, Craighead said. The clinic no longer is receiving new patients, but Craighead said current ones will still receive care and prescriptions through Dec. 1 and have guidance on where to go next if needed.
Information about Medicaid and the enrollment process has been provided by the clinic since the expansion program began in 2019, he said.
“We’re very grateful for the support we’ve had,” Craighead said. “We are closing with a heavy heart, but we know in our hearts that our patients have other opportunities for health care now through Medicaid that we just simply could not reasonably provide them. We’re not leaving them destitute with nowhere to go.”