SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald
The La Plata Community Clinic, with medical personnel and support staff members working pro bono, has opened without fanfare.
The soft opening was the result of uncertainty, Executive Director Harriet Brandstetter said Friday.
“It was the first day, so we didn’t know how it would go,” she said. “But it went marvelously. Dr. Megan Lewis saw eight or nine patients in the morning.”
A project long in development, the clinic has the goal of serving the medical and dental needs of the working poor, the homeless, the uninsured and low-income adults.
La Plata County came up short of health care in 2007 when Valley-Wide Health Systems closed its center in Durango. Voters subsequently rejected a proposal to tax themselves for a health-service district.
The clinic will help close a gap in care that has existed for years. For people such as David Tarr, who has had issues with his teeth, it can mean a dramatic quality-of-life improvement.
Tarr was there Monday to see Jim Abramowitz, a retired dentist, who is providing his services free, as are all other professionals at the clinic.
“When I started to practice in Denver in 1972, pro bono work was expected of you,” Abramowitz said while filling two teeth for Tarr.
Tarr lost teeth to a hockey puck as a youngster in Los Angeles and received implants. As an adult, he had teeth knocked out when he fell through a roof on a job, and later a fall during a seizure dislodged a tooth.
Tarr was effusive in his praise of clinic personnel.
“They’re people who actually care,” Tarr said. “Thank God for this place. It’s a blessing that makes me see the world in a different light.”
The mission of the clinic is to cover basic health problems. Doctors see patients with such complaints as the flu, an earache or diabetes. Dentists do fillings or extractions.
Care is not free. All patients pay something based on income, family size and absence of any medical or dental insurance. All patients must be residents of La Plata County.
Brandstetter said medical and nonmedical volunteers have been scheduled to cover shifts for the remainder of the month. And until funding becomes available, the clinic will rely on volunteers to keep the doors open, she said.
Jaynee Fontecchio, a registered nurse and director of the Citizens Health Advisory Council, which brought about the creation of the community clinic, is upbeat.
“This has been quite an endeavor,” Fontecchio said Friday. “But this is such a giving community that I think that once we get going there will be more volunteers instead of fewer.”
There is no way to continue without volunteer providers, she said.
The Karakin Foundation provided seed money to establish the clinic, and it will provide about $200,000 this year for rent, utilities and Brandstetter’s salary, Fontecchio said.
The Citizens Health Advisory Council is one of the organizations that has emerged from the fluid population of health-care professionals and others interested in improving health care in the county.
“I’m so appreciative that members of the citizens council saw the need and were so persistent and fruitful,” Brandstetter said.
Brandstetter was hired last year from the La Clínica de Familia in Las Cruces, N.M., where she was the CEO. The organization had nine clinics and 350 paid employees, she said.
“In excess of 50 percent of our patients were uninsured,” Brandstetter said. “We received federal, state, county and city money.”