Tracy City Free Clinic: Visionaries Realize a Dream

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

On Nov. 1, the Tracy City Free Clinic opened for business at the Littell-Partin Center, the former Grundy County High School. The clinic, which serves the uninsured, manifests the vision of Dr. Tom Phelps of Sewanee and Grundy County High School graduate Emily Partin who dedicated her retirement to turning the old high school into a Mecca for community services.

“I’m doing what I always wanted to do, practice medicine,” said Phelps. “I retired because I was tired of fighting for patients with the insurance companies and losing.” For Partin, “the concept of a free clinic was part of the original vision” when she undertook refurbishing the old high school. Last April, Phelps and Partin found common ground at a collaborative-resources seminar sponsored by the South Cumberland Community Fund.

“I’ve wanted to open a free clinic a long time, but I didn’t think I had the resources,” said Phelps. Grundy County has some of the highest poor-health indicators in the country. Phelps points to the lack of Medicaid expansion in Tennessee in 2015. Fifteen rural hospitals have closed due to the high cost of providing emergency room care to uninsured non-paying clients.

The most critical unserved health care categories in Grundy County, according to Phelps, are women’s health care and health care for young men. No mobile or free clinics offer women’s health care or provide contraceptives, except for the understaffed, overextended county health department. And formerly incarcerated young men who cannot find work do not qualify for Affordable Care Act insurance premium assistance or Medicaid. Another hurdle for uninsured Plateau residents is the long distance to the Beersheba free clinic and the county health department in Altamont. Many have no transportation, and free transportation by SETHRA must be booked a month in advance, Phelps said.

After retiring from a career in sleep therapy and family medicine, Phelps began volunteering at Christian’s Celebrating God’s Bounty (CCGB) clinic in Winchester, a 501(c)(3) offering free health care. When the idea for a free clinic in Tracy City began to gather momentum, Phelps’ CCGB connection brought the organization on board as the sponsoring nonprofit. Partin persuaded other tenants in the Littell-Partin Center to share office space. The clinic pays only $50 per month rent. Partin drew on her relationship with Volunteer Behavioral Health (VBH) for a donation of almost all the necessary equipment. VBH had opened a combined medical-mental health care facility in Cookeville which lost funding. “We loaded my trailer to the gills,” said Phelps, who drove to Cookeville with volunteers to pick up the equipment.

“People came out of the woodwork offering to help,” Phelps said. The South Cumberland Community Fund provided a $15,000 grant which pays for lab work and X-rays. The clinic also received financial assistance from Southern Tennessee Regional Health Services, Carol and Bill Titus, and Lucette S. Richards. Phelps’ colleagues see clients free of charge or on a sliding scale when a specialist is needed.

Joining Phelps at the all-volunteer clinic are nurse practitioner Beth Sperry, who has devoted her entire career to women’s health, and two Tracy City natives: Sue Chase, the receptionist, and Maggie White Parmley, an AmeriCorps volunteer and University graduate.

“Generally, the people we see are really, really sick,” Phelps acknowledged. A man with life-threatening blood pressure levels had not seen a doctor in three years. Another client had been suffering from bleeding bowels for six months. Since opening, the clinic has diagnosed and begun treating five young men, formerly incarcerated drug users, for hepatitis C, preventing spread of the highly infectious disease in the community.

“Every patient we treat is one less person going to the emergency room,” Phelps observed. In addition to the uninsured, the clinic also sees the underinsured with excessive maximum out-of-pocket costs. Office hours are Tuesday and Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Phone (931) 592-4000 for an appointment.

“For practitioners to sit with a client who doesn’t have insurance and hasn’t seen a doctor in a long, long time, and to understand what has happened over the years, is so beneficial in the diagnosis,” Partin insisted, “and to overcoming the barriers treatment can pose.”

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