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Free health clinic for uninsured gets new home, help from Sanford Health Cooperative

The clinic received a three-year grant to work with the health co-op. Based on positive outcomes, the partnership has continued and the co-op provides nursing staff each Wednesday for patient care.

OLGFC and Sanford Health Cooperative
OLGFC Administrator Mariana Gutierrez (front, center) is joined by Sanford Health Cooperative nurses Beth Hindbjorgen (from left) and Lori Jones, and interpreters Hilda Sanchez-Herrera and Juan Perez.
Julie Buntjer / The Globe
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WORTHINGTON — OLGFC, a free health care clinic for the uninsured, has found what is hoped to be a permanent home near Sanford Worthington Medical Center.

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The clinic, established in 2011 as the Our Lady of Guadalupe Free Clinic, relocated in May to a Sanford-owned building at 616 11th St. The move follows what has been a six-year collaboration between OLGFC and Sanford’s Health Cooperative, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota-based program that travels to Worthington one day a week to provide patient care at the free clinic.

A trio of Sanford Health Cooperative registered nurses see patients who can’t afford medical care, yet have ongoing medical needs — the most common of which are hypertension and diabetes. They are joined each week by a pharmacist and an interpreter who also helps patients with other needs, such as housing or energy assistance.

Mariana Gutierrez, OLGFC administrator, said Sanford Health Cooperative is a tremendous help to the clinic.

“Sanford reached out to us (six years ago) and visited one of our weekend specialty clinics,” Gutierrez said. The Saturday clinics — offered every six weeks back then — often serve more than 100 patients.

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“They saw the services we were providing … and asked to partner with us to help patients manage chronic diseases,” she added

Clinic
The OLGFC Free Clinic is located at 616 11th St., Worthington.
Julie Buntjer / The Globe

The clinic was initially awarded a three-year grant to work with the health cooperative. Based on the positive outcomes that resulted, the partnership has continued with the co-op providing nursing staff each Wednesday for ongoing patient care.

The nurses offer high quality care to individuals with complex medical needs, Gutierrez said. In the process, they counsel patients on medications and when to go to the clinic versus visiting the emergency room.

Overwhelming need

OLGFC got its start in the basement of St. Mary’s Church 11 years ago as an idea of Rev. Jim Callahan. He’d seen a need for individuals with health issues — yet who didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t afford a doctor visit — to receive medical care.

Callahan reached out to friend Dr. David Plevak, then working in the Mayo Health System in Rochester, about seeing “a few” individuals on a Saturday.

Plevak saw a dozen people on his first visit, and told Callahan he had to come back because he’d prescribed medications to some of those he saw.

Today, 11 years later, Plevak is considered the clinic’s co-founder and continues to serve as OLGFC’s medical director. Now retired and living in Colorado, he participates in weekly conference calls from the Sanford Health Cooperative nursing team. Through a tele-health program, he and Dr. Susan Burge instruct nurses on whether medications should be adjusted or different medications prescribed to treat patients who present ongoing concerns.

The number of patients seen by OLGFC and the co-op has grown tremendously, Gutierrez said, adding that the continuum of care has been a great benefit to patients.

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When OLGFC offered the clinic every six weeks, there was no follow-up with patients in between.

“There were always challenging things with medications,” she said. “It was difficult.

“When Sanford came on board, they were actually God-sent. They are able to see follow-up with patients at the bigger clinics.”

Earlier this month, the clinic hired a part-time provider to see patients on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, with Sanford Health Cooperative continuing to provide patient care on Wednesdays. It’s a step in the right direction.

With the number of patients the clinic sees, they could use the services of the Health Cooperative five days a week. It just isn’t possible at this time.

“We’re lucky that they’re here once a week and have really helped our patients,” said Bryan Hagen, a local pharmacist and chairman of OLGFC’s 10-member board of directors. “If we had a magic wand and lots of money … that’s the goal.

“I’d love to have classrooms down here where we can educate about diabetes and those types of things,” he added.

“And videos to just show how to refill medications,” chimed in Beth Hindbjorgen, RN and Sanford Health Cooperative program manager.

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Gutierrez said patients are in need of a lot of education. Many — particularly those new to the U.S. — have never had preventative health care.

Relying on grants

Since OLGFC was established, it has relied on donations, volunteers and grants to be able to help uninsured adults in need of medical care.

Hagen said they continue to write grants in hopes of securing more funding to expand services.

When he initially teamed up with OLGFC he was working as a pharmacist and manager of Sterling Drug. The pharmacy continues to work with the clinic’s patients today.

“We would help get medications to patients during the big clinics,” Hagen said, adding that his time with the clinic has been gratifying. “We’ve helped a lot of patients.

“If they didn’t have the free clinic, (these people) wouldn’t get the care,” he said. “It would be tough for them to get help with the costs.”

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“There are patients taking up to 60 medications daily and they need help with that — close monitoring,” Gutierrez added. “Some patients need labs weekly and close follow-up.

“If it wasn’t for (the health cooperative) and the free clinic, I don’t know that they’d still be alive,” she said. “They are very grateful to the services that are available to them.”

Patients are expected to pay for their medications, and Hagen said they always look for cheaper options, such as using generic brands or asking if manufacturers will offer patient assistance.

Hagen said the community is fortunate to have the Health Cooperative partnership — as well as the provider collaboration from Sanford, Avera and Mayo Health for OLGFC’s Saturday clinics, which are offered every two months at Worthington Chiropractic Clinic.

Bridging the gap

Each new patient enrolled in the health cooperative goes through a comprehensive health assessment, said Hindbjorgen. That includes obtaining medical history, discussion of depression and anxiety issues, even asking about transportation and housing, and if the patient has a spiritual connection or attends church.

“We try to cover dental care with our patients too — to encourage them to take care of their teeth,” she said.

When it comes to patient care, the nurses do point-of-care testing and lab certification, check lipids, blood sugar and hemoglobin A1C. They also promote preventative care, such as getting flu shots and COVID boosters, access to mammograms and pap smears for their female patients and connecting patients with consultants, such as dietitians, physical therapists and occupational therapists. They also work with a retired behavioral health nurse who consults with patients on a volunteer basis.

Juan Perez, a community health worker for Sanford Worthington Clinic, fills the role of interpreter every other Wednesday at OLGFC. Not only does he interpret medical care to Spanish-speaking patients, he also inquires about other issues they may have, such as adequate housing, food or financial concerns.

Perez, who came to Worthington 20 years ago, connects with patients through shared experiences — he, too, was once new to this community and country.

“I like what I do because I know, coming here from a different country … you don’t know where to get (help), or what sort of resources you can get in the community,” he said.

In one instance, Perez connected a patient to the Southwest Minnesota Opportunity Council’s energy assistance program after her furnace broke and she couldn’t afford a new one. She qualified for assistance and received a new furnace.

It’s help like that, Perez said, that builds trust with patients, and they feel more comfortable sharing their health concerns as well.

“Sometimes it’s hard for patients to accept a lot of help,” Hindbjorgen said, adding that she and fellow nurses see their role as being a bridge between physician appointments.

“We help patients a lot of times follow up on the instructions they were given; make sure they understand how to take their medications and follow the whole plan of care,” she said.

“Many of our patients … Spanish is even their second language and they have very low health literacy,” Gutierrez said. “If you suggest to a patient to take a medication twice a day, you take for granted that it’s understood.”

“We’ve had patients too who are numerically illiterate — they don’t know numbers and if it’s a big or a low number,” Hindbjorgen said. “Education is a big piece.”

In addition to having Spanish-language interpreters at every Wednesday clinic, Sanford Health Cooperative uses Language Line to translate for patients whose first languages are Amharic, Tigrinya, Karen and others.

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Julie Buntjer became editor of The Globe in July 2021, after working as a beat reporter at the Worthington newspaper since December 2003. She has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism from South Dakota State University.
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