By Benita M. Dodd
Georgia’s uninsured rate was 13.4 percent in 2017, the fourth-highest in the nation, according to the Census Bureau. People without health insurance who need ongoing medical care have few options. Their frequent decision to use the emergency room for non-emergencies is financially overwhelming for all involved and imposes a heavy burden on a health-care delivery system not intended for that purpose.
Heightened awareness of this challenge led to the creation of the Good Samaritan Health Center of Gwinnett 13 years ago. It grew out of an eye-opening experience for several Gwinnett County physicians who volunteered in 2003 at a free health fair in the parking lot of a low-income housing complex.
Expecting to see mostly healthy residents and a few with minor ailments, the volunteers quickly realized significant health issues were going untreated. In fact, many adults and children were seeing a physician for the first time in years.
The idea to open a charitable Christian clinic took root that day. Good Sam Gwinnett, as it is affectionately known, is a faith-based nonprofit providing routine primary health care and general dentistry services to the poor and uninsured indigent of Gwinnett and surrounding areas, striving to meet both physical and spiritual needs of patients.
Since opening, the clinic has served patients more than 145,000 times. Its 46 employees and 400-plus volunteers served 26,000 customers in 2017. They expect that number to reach 34,000 this year, a 25 percent increase and an estimated value of $10 million.
Back in 2011, when the clinic operated in a 4,000 square-foot office in Lawrenceville, it was open just three days a week. A part-time staff of six served 200 patients a month.
Greg Lang, the clinic’s executive director, recalls one patient who came through the staff entrance in November 2011, on a day the clinic was not offering appointments.
Nancy was 55, with diabetes, high blood pressure, and back pain due to a recent fall. Uninsured and struggling to get by on limited income, she had been referred to the clinic. She circled the building until she found the unlocked staff door.
Lang arranged for Nancy to be seen the next day. She weighed 176 pounds then. Over the next seven years, Nancy faced health crises including stomach cancer that would shrink her to just 87 pounds.
As the clinic grew, it moved to a larger location in Norcross in July 2017, opening Gwinnett’s only full-time charity dental practice. Nancy followed; she also became a dental patient.
Having a medical home has made a difference: In the years since walking through the staff entrance, Nancy has relied on Good Sam Gwinnett for treatment of hypertension, diabetes, anemia, depression and cavities. Her health is improving slowly but surely; today, she weighs 113 pounds.
“These people are like my family,” Nancy says of her trusted provider.
Good Sam Gwinnett acquired another location a year ago through a merger. Back then, the second location served about 100 people a month. Today, it serves about 1,000.
“Without Good Sam Gwinnett, thousands of individuals in the community would struggle to find inexpensive and convenient access to a medical home,” Lang says.
While it is a safety-net clinic, Good Sam Gwinnett is not a free clinic. Patients pay a small fee representing about half the actual cost of the services provided. The average patient fee per visit is about $63.39; the average cost per visit is about $121.
The annual budget is about $3.2 million. Fundraising activities and donations help cover operations. The center continues to embrace its evangelical beginnings, offering prayer and spiritual counseling to patients and volunteers.
Good Sam Gwinnett’s impact is multiplied through teaching up to 100 rising health care professionals each year. Several academic partners send undergraduate and graduate students to complete clinical rotations under the supervision of the clinic’s medical staff.
Lang makes the most of the opportunity. “While teaching, we increase exposure and sensitivity among these rising medical professionals to the needs of and challenges faced by poor and uninsured patients,” he says.
He freely admits to being intentional in volunteer recruiting.
“Those living in less affluent households often can’t gain the work experience necessary these days for graduate program admission. Our volunteer outreach aims to create a path for low-income students to realize their potential, develop useful skills and establish connections they might otherwise not make. The combination makes them more competitive in the college application process.”
The combination is working. Good Sam Gwinnett was recently featured at a community foundation event as a nonprofit success story. Lang proudly took the stage with a former volunteer, employee and graduate student who is now a licensed physician assistant.
“When I showed up at Good Sam five years ago I did not know how to take blood pressure,” she told the audience.
“Today, I work in a hospital critical care unit.”
To volunteer, donate or find out more, visit the website at https://goodsamgwinnett.org.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (November 16, 2018). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.