​Health Care for Free

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

The second Saturday of every month, the St. Thomas Health Foundation Mobile Health Unit pulls into the parking lot at Morton Memorial United Methodist Church to offer free health care to anyone and everyone. No insurance is needed, and there is no income qualification screening.

“Many hospitals are closing in Tennessee,” said St. Thomas Foundation volunteer Carol Titus. “It’s a way to get health care to places that don’t have much else.”

At last year’s area Hunger Walk, Titus met Community Action Committee Director Betty Carpenter and the Rev. Jodi McCullah, pastor at Morton Memorial. The CAC and Morton Memorial both host food distribution programs for those in need. Carpenter suggested the monthly Food Ministry at Morton Memorial would be a great venue for the St. Thomas Mobile Health Unit. The mobile unit began hosting second-Saturday clinics at Morton Memorial in January.

“The Food Mission clients often don’t have cars and need to work out transportation,” said volunteer Bill Titus, explaining the advantage of the two events coinciding. Titus pointed to a free St. Thomas medical clinic in Grundy County several years ago as “solidifying awareness of the need” in the area as well as the importance of addressing “the transportation component.”

“We served 160 families today,” said McCullah at the Aug. 10 Food Ministry. “People start arriving at six in the morning.” The mobile health unit offers services from 9 a.m.-1 p.m., sufficient time for the physician on staff to see eight to 12 patients. No appointment is necessary.

McCullah stressed most Food Ministry clients are “the working poor or the retired on a fixed income caring for grandchildren.”

Since the Food Ministry receives free USDA food from the Chattanooga Food Bank, clients must be below 130 percent of the poverty line or be enrolled in a government assistance program, said volunteer Rich Wyckoff.

However, since the mobile health unit is funded by a private donation to the St. Thomas Health Foundation, services are available to everyone free of charge. If a patient has insurance, St. Thomas will file the claim, but will cover all deductibles, copays, and related expenses.

Called “Ministry in Motion,” the mobile health project served primarily Rutherford County before expanding its service area to include most of middle Tennessee. St. Thomas also operates a free mobile mammogram unit, which travels to 26 counties, according to driver Jeff Patterson.

For patients needing prescriptions, an affiliated program Rx Outreach provides free medications by mail.

In October, the mobile clinic will offer flu shots, but Bill Titus stressed, “There are limits to what the doctor can do on the mobile unit.” The mobile unit is not equipped to do blood draws, for example. “The mobile unit can’t replace a patient’s existing primary care relationship or assume that role.”

In July, the mobile clinic had three emergency visits. August was calmer. Dr. Deseree Prentice did several well-child exams for children starting school, as well as seeing adult patients with mental health issues and diabetes symptoms. Prentice scheduled follow-up appointments for the adult patients at the St. Louise clinic in Murfreesboro, which serves the uninsured and underinsured at little or no cost. She made sure the patients had “reliable transportation” and that the appointment time fit their schedule “to increase the chance they’ll show up.”

“Diabetes patients need blood work done at least every six months,” Prentice explained. “People with high blood pressure need regular visits to make sure the medication they take isn’t having any side effects.”

“Once a patient is in the system we can determine how often they need to visit, adjust their medications, and that sort of thing,” Prentice said. “The important thing is to get people plugged into the system."