Home News and Features The Game Changer: Health Care Even if You Can’t Afford It

The Game Changer: Health Care Even if You Can’t Afford It

Dental hygienist Joanne Puente works with patient John LePage at the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic in Barre. Photo by John Lazenby.
John LePage started his journey toward the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic in Barre decades ago, at the age of 19, after a serious injury while living in New York City. The Barre native returned home and got a part-time job in the “one man ‘ElectroNeuroDiagnostics’ department at our local hospital right here in Berlin.” 

He started on a part-time basis — three half-days per week — while recovering from the injury and enduring housing insecurity, transportation challenges, hunger, and lots of pain, he said. 

But “10,000 patients and 17 years later, insurmountable health issues propelled me into the world of the unemployed and the uninsured,” he wrote in an email to The Bridge. “Unable to make my mortgage payments, I was forced back into the elements. May through September weren’t too bad. Living cold and hungry, October through April was Hell.”

A fifth-generation Vermonter, “raised in the same house on LePage Road where my father was born and raised,” LePage was no stranger to resourcefulness. It was 1994, and he’d heard that a new free clinic had opened in the former Barre City Hospital. Although it sounded like fiction to him, he checked it out, and found a “game changer.” He’s not only been a patient ever since, but he’s about to start his second stint as a board member (the first was in 1995).

Fast forward 29 years and one global pandemic later, and the 501(c)(3) charity has just completed its first full year in a new location at 51 Church Street (still in Barre City), as well as the first year of being open since the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to switch to virtual visits. Coincidentally, it’s also the end of Dan Barlow’s first year as the clinic’s executive director. 

In 2022, Barlow said, the clinic served 450 people, completing 500 visits with a primary care doctor, and 250 visits with a dental hygienist. 

The clinic serves “the most vulnerable members of our community,” Barlow said, and is one of nine free and referral clinics in Vermont. The Barre clinic serves all of Washington County, plus three towns in Orange county, “but we don’t turn anyone away,” he said.

Barlow is currently heading up his first annual appeal for the organization (it was already underway when he started in 2021). He’s hoping to raise $100,000 toward the clinic’s $425,000 budget. A third of the budget comes from the federal government, he said, and the rest “from individuals, businesses and foundations.”

About 40 doctors and nurses volunteer at the clinic, many of them retired. Barlow said they “like to keep their license active and can do that by volunteering here at the clinic … this is their way of giving back by seeing patients who otherwise couldn’t afford to see a doctor.”

Up until recently, the clinic primarily served patients with no health insurance (about 90% uninsured versus 10% insured, Barlow said), but this year half the clinic’s patients are now uninsured. The other half “maybe have health insurance through their job or a spouse’s job, yet they can’t afford the deductible, or they can’t find a primary care doctor accepting patients right now.”

This summer, the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic started offering monthly clinics at the Hilltop Inn in Berlin, where a number of unhoused people are temporarily staying.

“We bring everything we need,” Barlow said. “We see patients right there. The Hilltop gave us a room with WiFi and electricity. We bring a (portable) massage table to use as an exam table.” 

Dr. Robert Penney, MD, a volunteer with the Peoples Health and Wellness Clinic, meets with patient Bryan Lafayette at the Hilltop Inn in Berlin. Photo by John Lazenby.
Erica Reil, operations director at Another Way community center in Montpelier, works with many of the clinic’s patients. Reil also serves on both the Montpelier and the Barre homelessness task forces. Riel has worked with the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic to get health care for the people with whom she works. 

What does that look like?

“They’re getting medications to folks that are unhoused, paying for prescriptions, helping with getting dental work done, finding doctors, answering insurance questions … I can’t speak more highly of them. They talk with people at their level, explaining things with them and taking their time.”

Riel mentioned “Dan,” whose teeth had rotted, she said. “He didn’t have any insurance. He was basically afraid to talk to anybody. He went to the clinic; they worked with him on getting his teeth extracted and finding a dentist that would do sedation dentistry. His teeth were extremely painful and rotted. He was able to get his teeth pulled and to get it paid for with his insurance.”

Before the extraction, Riel said Dan “couldn’t get nutrition, he couldn’t get good mental health. It helped him gain confidence. He now can smile … whereas before he was in pain all the time.”

Among other services, Barlow said, clinic staff set up patient appointments with a primary care doctor. “They get blood pressure checked — it might be the first time having those tests and screenings done in a decade or more. Often we help them apply for Medicaid or Vermont Health Connect. … This year we’re on track to help 60 people find permanent health insurance.”

“I can’t even begin to imagine the depths of despair I would have fallen to had it not been for the People’s Health and Wellness Clinic,” LePage said. “I still wrangle with the fallout of my serious injury as a 19 year old. My lifeline: my clinic helps me stand up. I pay taxes. I feed the system … perhaps better than I feed myself.”

The People’s Health and Wellness Clinic is an appointment-only clinic. To learn more about its services or to make an appointment, go to phwcvt.org/services-and-eligibility or call 802-479-1229. To donate, go to phwcvt.org/donate.