Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center got its start in 2001 when a group of concerned citizens saw the incredible health-care void in Hertford County. From that observation, efforts began that resulted in the vibrant health services that exist today. Under the umbrella of Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, 14,287 patients were served at four sites last year.
It all started when Dr. Brian Magrane, formerly of Ahoskie Primary Care, shared his vision of providing primary health care to the uninsured and underinsured. He rallied the support of local primary care physicians and gained support of leaders from the faith community, health department and hospitals. As a result, the Helping Hands Clinic of Hertford County was established. The clinic, staffed almost solely by volunteers, saw its first patient in December 2001.
According to Kim Schwartz, the CEO of Roanoke Chowan Community Health Center, access to care increased threefold over the last decade and county health rankings improved by more than 25 percent. In addition, the Telehealth program through remote patient monitoring has reduced hospitalizations and ED visits by more than 80 percent, Schwartz said. She said the medication assistance program has provided over $5 million in free medications for sliding fee patients in 10 years.
“Economically, we started with 59 employees and all leased sites,” Schwartz said. “We now have 134 employees and have constructed two new sites and remodeled the third with federal, state and private grant funding of over $20 million leaving no capital debt for the community health center or the communities to absorb.”
The scope of the Helping Hands Clinic involved treatment of adult acute and chronic diseases for people living in Hertford County. The clinic operated on Thursday evenings for a two-hour period, allowing eight patients to be seen per clinic night. While the total number of patients served was not huge, the impact and the difference the clinic made to those individuals served was substantial.
Funding for the clinic came primarily through a $5,000 annual donation from Hertford-Gates Health Agency, Roanoke-Chowan Hospital Medical Staff and Roanoke-Chowan Hospital, now Vidant Roanoke-Chowan Hospital. Hertford Public Health Authority donated space and utilities for the clinic. Roanoke Chowan Hospital donated lab and x-ray testing. Primary care physicians, as well as nurses and clerical volunteers, gave their time to staff the clinic. Phyllis Parker generously donated her time as volunteer Executive Director. Dr. Colin Jones served as Medical Director. Rev. Patrick Young served as Chairman of the Board of Directors. Many others donated their time to make the clinic a success.
The Board of Directors of the Helping Hands Clinic – with representation from the faith, healthcare and medical communities, as well as community leaders and members at large – was the long-term sustainable force behind the clinic. However the need to expand services to individuals beyond Hertford County was an agenda item of great concern to the board. The Helping Hands Clinic was an unincorporated association with 501(c)(3) tax exemption that operated as a free clinic. Very quickly the resources of the Helping Hands Clinic were exhausted and alternate options were explored.
The Helping Hands Clinic stakeholders seized the opportunity to move from a free clinic with extremely limited capacities and aggressively pursued Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) funds. The board joined in discussions in January 2003 with Roanoke Chowan Hospital regarding the pursuit of Federally Qualified Health Clinic (FQHC) status for the hospital owned primary care practices, formerly called Roanoke Chowan Medical Practices and the Helping Hands Clinic. Roanoke-Chowan Hospital provided all of the funding, grant-writing, technical, administrative and legal support during the formative months – that stretched into a year or two – while the funding application was being prepared and submitted.
In July 2004, the Helping Hands Clinic (HHC) reorganized itself into a new organization, Roanoke-Chowan Community Health Center (RCCHC). Roanoke-Chowan Hospital, its parent organizations, East Carolina Health, and University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina (UHS), the original board of the Ahoskie free clinic, RCMP’s medical staff, and interested community members had begun planning this new model in early 2003. Governed by a newly seated community-based board, RCCHC approved new by-laws and after rigorously meeting all federal requirements opened May 1, 2005. The center combined four primary care sites, formerly operated by Roanoke-Chowan Hospital Services. These four sites, collectively known as Roanoke-Chowan Medical Practices, included two sites in Ahoskie and two sites in Murfreesboro.
“The full truth is RCCHC would not be here without the vision of Vidant Roanoke Chowan Hospital and the Vidant system,” said Schwartz. “Their continued commitment to the people of Eastern North Carolina knows no bounds. Sue Lassiter, President of Vidant Roanoke Chowan Hospital is a true partner and we are always looking for new ways to address the needs of our service area collaboratively.” Other help, Schwartz said, came from the then University Health System (which became Vidant Health Systems) and Pitt County Memorial Foundation, which provided startup funds in excess of $4 million over a four year period and continue to provide program resources through the Vidant System Community Benefit Grant program.
“It is very hard to name one thing I’m proudest of about our community health center,” Schwartz added. “Our community has supported us; our Board of Directors is fully engaged. We have very little staff turnover – retention is in the 90 percent – our medical staff are incredibly compassionate and dedicated…Our quality outcomes regarding Hypertension, CVD and Diabetes are in the top tier of all health center rankings. Perhaps the one thing if I had to name it would be our team approach and reputation for striving to be the best we can be in service to our mission.”
Schwartz is also proud of the community support the health center gives.
“All of our sites are community sites, meaning we have many community groups that also use our facilities at no cost at all hours o the day,” she said. “We partner with the VA for example, and they served the regional veterans from our Ahoskie site. We have partnered with the East Carolina School of Dental Medicine Service Learning Center for the first co-located Dental Residency program on the same campus. Literally, thousands of folks now have access to dental care where there was none.”