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Free medical clinic planned for St. Croix, Pierce counties

Modern health-care news is seldom good. Those with insurance find rising premiums eat up pay increases, while some businesses have dropped employee coverage.

The crisis is national but closer to home the statistics are equally grim. In 2004 more than 375,000 Wisconsinites - 7 percent of the state's population - were said to be uninsured.

More disturbing for local outpatient surgical nurse Mary Conroy-Johnson was a University of Wisconsin study of health care in the state's 72 counties.

Pierce County had the second highest percent of residents statewide who said they skipped medical care because of inability to pay. St. Croix, considered a wealthier county, ranked 10th highest in that category.

Both counties also ranked higher than Wisconsin's average in the percent of residents with no health insurance.

With statistics like that in mind, Conroy-Johnson is thrilled to be one of the organizers of a proposed free clinic in River Falls.

"The need is certainly out there, and this is something we can do right here in our community," she said. "That's why we're so excited about this project. We can bring some immediate results to this problem."

The free River Falls Clinic will likely:

  • Start operations by next April as a nonprofit organization.
  • Be open one evening a week from 5-9 p.m. on a first-come, first-serve basis.
  • Be staffed by volunteer doctors, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses and a receptionist.
  • Be located in a wing of the River Falls Medical Clinic, 1687 E. Division St.
  • Serve anyone who qualifies, but primarily cater to St. Croix and Pierce County residents.
  • Help the uninsured whose incomes are 185 percent of the federally established poverty level ($18,130 for a single person, $37,000 for a family of four).
  • Provide preventive basic care for such conditions as back pain, bad colds, flu, respiratory and ear infections, chronic hypertension, diabetes management - anything that would require a visit to a regular medical clinic.
  • Include a small pharmacy plus access to lab work and X-rays provided by the River Falls Area Hospital.
  • Not dispense narcotics or offer dental, mental health or reproductive care (the latter is already provided by the counties).

    The target age group for the new free clinic is 18-64. That's because Wisconsin's Badger Care covers most uninsured children and Medicare is there for the elderly.

    As a response to escalating medical costs, free health clinics are popping up nationwide as well as in western Wisconsin. Free clinics have opened recently in Menomonie and Chippewa Falls and, a few years ago, in Eau Claire.

    Using it as a model, River Fall organizers are in close touch with those operating the Menomonie free clinic.

    That clinic, located in the Red Cedar Medical Clinic, has attracted needy patients from 10 surrounding counties. Pierce and St. Croix counties rank No. 2 and 3 in the number of its patients, making up 12 percent of the total.

    The River Falls free clinic is being backed by the River Falls Medical Clinic, the River Falls Area Hospital and the Kinnickinnic Health Foundation.

    A 14-member steering committee has begun meeting regularly to plan for the clinic. Conroy-Johnson said a key ingredient for the free clinic is linkage to a network of specialists in areas such as podiatry, cardiology, orthopedics, urology, gastroenterology, internal medicine and more.

    "This would involve follow-up care that a patient needs," she said. "Maybe we get commitments from these specialists to agree to take at least one free referral a month."

    The informal network may also expand to the community. For instance, Conroy-Johnson said that volunteers staffing the clinic at night deserve to be fed.

    "Most will have been working all day at their jobs," she said. "We could try to have local restaurants bring in food for them."

    Another possibility, she added, could involve finding drivers for those patients who live far away in either county and lack transportation. Conroy-Johnson said such volunteers might be found through local churches.

    Startup costs will mostly involve paying for the pharmaceutical supply. The free clinic will also need to pay for a part-time nurse manager and transcriptionist.

    Menomonie's free clinic budgeted $125,000 for its first year. With the River Falls free clinic opening next April - well into the budget year - first-year startup costs will be less.

    Kinnickinnic Health Foundation Executive Director Heather Logelin, a North Hudson resident, will apply for funding grants. Business sponsors will be sought. A Saturday, Oct. 14, barn dance fund-raiser, complete with a live band and silent auction, is also in the works.

    Logelin said the free clinic will be a "dignified" place for uninsured patients to go because of the location in a wing of the regular clinic.

    Both Conroy-Johnson and Logelin said the free clinic will begin with a modest agenda.

    "We want to limit the project to start with," Logelin said. "We want to be clear about the services we can offer and not get so big we flounder."

    Added Conroy-Johnson: "The intent is to do this well from the start. As we go along, things will evolve as we see what we need to do differently. We don't want to promise the moon and then have to cut back."

    Both women said that there's already great enthusiasm from those who know about the free clinic. The key, they said, is sustaining that momentum among volunteers and financial backers.

    "Definitely the challenge will be to keep the operation going year after year," Logelin said.

    To volunteer to help or for more information on the free River Falls Medical Clinic, contact Conroy-Johnson at (715) 425-2127 or; or Logelin at (715) 426-4503 or

    Logelin said the free clinic offers hope at the local level for the financial burdens associated today with medical care.

    "The issue seems so big that the average person thinks that nothing that can be done," she said. "This clinic is a way for the community to come together and actually do something on what I see as a basic right -- a human rights' issue. It doesn't seem fair that there are people out there who get sick but then can't afford to get medical treatment."

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