Addison County residents celebrated the opening of a new federally-qualified health clinic in Shoreham over the weekend.
The Shorewell Clinic has long had a reputation for serving anyone who needs care. Now organizers hope to grow and serve a larger population with a new building and more medical professionals.
As he stands in an office in the brand new clinic, Dr. Allan Curtiss says he came to Shoreham 25 years ago, because he knew he was needed.
“There used to be a big sign by the co-op that said, ‘We need a doctor,’ and it fell down about the time I got here,” he said.
Curtiss came to Vermont from South Carolina and had hoped to slow down when he arrived in Addison County. But that’s not what happened, as he quickly gained a reputation for seeing anyone, regardless of whether they had insurance or not.
“It didn't matter. If you walked through the door, you got seen,” he said.
But five years ago, lightning started a fire that destroyed the historic Newton Academy, where his clinic was located. Curtiss lost everything.
“All my books and all the pictures. And all the things. We actually had a piano in the office there that went too. It was pretty tragic, actually. To be honest, at the same time it was burning, I was running around in my head where the next office might be,” he said.
Curtiss had been working with the Community Health Centers of the Rutland Region to join its group of federally-qualified health centers and expand the clinic in the Newton Academy building, but the fire put those plans on hold. With community support, Curtiss was able to reopen in a new location on Main Street in Shoreham, just 11 days later.
Meanwhile, the Community Health Centers decided to build a new building on Route 22A, and Shorewell became part of the center. The Shorewell Clinic moved to the new space in early June.
And with help, Dr. Curtiss will finally be able to cut back. A nurse practitioner, Margeruite Dusha, will join the clinic in August. She has experience in family practice as well as working with interpreters. And those skills will be useful with the farm communities in Shoreham and Orwell.
“I can do a full physical in Spanish. I grew up on a dairy farm – that’s where my heart and soul is – so I know I’m going to be happy here,” Dusha said.
A dentist will also be on site a few days a week, and Dusha says that makes it easy to encourage patients to take care of their dental health as well.
“Sometimes people don’t understand, that’s part of your total care. If you can get good dental care, it’s very beneficial to your whole body,” she said. Curtiss said that Dusha’s experience with pediatrics and women’s health will also be beneficial to the clinic.
Eventually, antibiotics and a limited number of medications for common diseases will be available on site.
Curtiss says the clinic will operate the same way it always has: Anyone can be seen, regardless of insurance. That’s a model that’s grown significantly since the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which included a provision, co-sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders, that increased the number of federally qualified health centers. There are now around 50 clinics associated with the centers in the state.
“People have to go to Middlebury or Castleton, or Vergennes, are probably the closest. Having a local resource here to serve this community that does both primary medical care and dental care, I think, will be a real big plus for this area,” said Grant Whitmer, executive director of the Community Health Centers of the Rutland Region.
The clinics became a separate entity from Rutland Regional Medical Center in 2004. In 2006, they gained the federally-qualified health center designation. They’ve expanded considerably, now operating six clinics and a dental clinic. Whitmer said they provide 150,000 visits per year to about 40,000 patients. The clinics accept all insurance, but they also have a sliding fee scale for people without insurance. And they work with navigators to help uninsured patients to sign up for coverage, especially people who may not be aware that they qualify for assistance. “We’re really gratified or proud of the fact that we help a lot of people enroll in Medicaid who I guess have been intimidated by that process,” Whitmer said.
While the health centers are part of an effort to bring affordable health care closer to these rural communities, Curtiss says some patients drive from all around Addison and Rutland Counties to see him.
“They like the care they get here. I spend a lot of time with the patients, sit and look at them. We talk and do a physical exam and come up with a diagnosis and treatment,” Curtiss said.
And now that treatment will continue well into the future.