NewspaperGroup taking medicine on the road to heal uninsured

BY KELLIE SCHMITT Californian staff writer

David Garza, 14, needed a physical to join his high school’s wrestling team, but his mother couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit.

Amber Garza, a nursing student, had noticed a shiny blue bus with the words “Mobile Medical” parked at Laurelglen Bible Church, and wondered if they could help.

On Tuesday, a physician assistant took David’s vital signs and evaluated his balance as he hopped around the bus’ exam room — all for free.

“This is such a great relief,” Garza said. “It’s a big burden off my shoulders.”

David was one of the first patients to visit Jesus Shack Mobile Medical’s new clinic, which opened several weeks ago with the goal of providing primary care services to Kern County’s growing number of uninsured. Jesus Shack, a Bakersfield-based nondenominational nonprofit ministry, plans to partner with a variety of local churches to host the mobile unit.

Ultimately, organizers envision a fleet of buses that could host dozens of clinics throughout the county, parking in church lots and utilizing volunteer networks for follow-up care. They hope that providing more primary care will improve health and keep uninsured residents out of the emergency rooms, thereby driving down costs for everyone.

“This is revolutionary,” said John Houchin, Jesus Shack’s community director. “It’s going to give people peace of mind, a sense of security and allow them to take care of their medical needs.”

The recipients of the care will likely cross economic strata since many local families can afford food, homes and cars, but don’t have enough left for health insurance, Houchin added.

Figures vary, but Kern Medical Center’s chief executive Paul Hensler estimates that a third of Kern County’s residents are uninsured.

“Is this going to make our whole uninsured population cared for overnight? No,” he said. Still, Hensler said any small steps to reduce those figures are beneficial.

THE FIRST BUS

For now, the first mobile clinic will stop once a week at Laurelglen for four hours.

Since the effort is so new, the first clinics have drawn just a handful of people. But organizers expect those numbers to climb as people learn of its services – up to 50 people per clinic session. If too many patients show up, they may have to make appointments for a future clinic date.

The staff uses a church room for registration, taking patients’ vital signs and inputing their electronic records.

The bus itself has two private clinic rooms that are designed to help patients with basic primary care, not urgent or emergency services. The idea is to offer patients treatment they’d otherwise receive at a family medicine doctor’s office, such as basic health screens and care for diabetes, hypertension or back pain.

Eventually, they hope to house a mini-pharmacy in the locked bus cabinets. In the initial stages, though, they’ll refer patients to Walmart and Target’s low-cost programs for many generic prescriptions.

The staff is all volunteer, including a physician medical director, two physician assistants and several nurses. The group is also hoping to attract numerous community volunteers who will help with follow-up care, such as checking on diabetic patients to encourage a healthy diet, or creating a walking club.

Volunteers — including medical staff — come from Laurelglen as well as Jesus Shack’s large network. Organizers are also in talks with local nursing programs to attract more people.

Volunteer Janet Barnes, a nurse, said she got involved to help the underserved, people who may fall through the cracks in both medical and spiritual care.

“This is something big for the community,” Barnes said. “I can’t tell you what it will become, but I hope it’s a way to reach out and benefit the community.”

Jerilyn Stewart, the clinical administrator, said she’d like to develop relationships with patients, helping shepherd a larger transformation to health.

“We want people to be healthy in all ways,” she said. “We’d like to be able to talk to them. Why do you have headaches? Is it stress? Can we help you get counseling?”

BUILDING A DREAM

Stewart, who was born in Bakersfield, worked for nearly 30 years as a physician assistant. When her five kids were grown and financial security reached, she wanted to give back.

“I couldn’t find a place though,” she said. “So I thought, well maybe I’ll start a place.”

She talked to a few churches, but no one was interested in hosting a medical outreach. Her son recommended Jesus Shack, a Christian organization that partners with various churches and local businesses. The group, which formed in 1997, spreads its spiritual message through concerts and street teams that distribute food to the needy.

Stewart met with founder Dave Voss, a former cardiac scrub nurse, who now leads the organization. Voss said he was drawn to the idea of providing care for the growing number of families without coverage.

He envisioned up to a dozen mobile units, funded by community donations, corporate sponsorship and assistance from local hospitals — who could benefit from eased pressure on their emergency rooms. And he saw the clinics traveling to Kern County’s isolated rural areas where care is sparse.

“I think this is going to be a very valuable tool, showing people that we’re there to serve them,” he said. “That vision really grew.”

While Voss was dreaming big, Stewart was planning the logistics for the first clinic. She and her husband researched other nationwide efforts, attended conferences, and eventually purchased the bus from a former Oklahoma eye-testing clinic. The Jesus Shack staff and volunteers gutted it, repainted it and equipped it — a process that cost about $225,000, less than half the price of a new one.

San Joaquin Community Hospital chipped in $50,000 for that cost, and pledged another $30,000 a year for ongoing equipment and supplies.

“It just met directly our mission to make sure medical care is provided to anyone regardless of their ability to pay,” said Jarrod McNaughton, the hospital’s vice president for marketing and development.

The mobile effort could also reduce the number of people without a medical home who use the hospital’s emergency room for primary care, he added.

SIMILAR EFFORTS

While organizers say their effort is the first of its kind in Kern County, there are other mobile, faith-based clinics around the United States.

Pennsylvania-based Mission of Mercy launched its effort in 1994, and now has five mobile clinics; 700 volunteers; and offers 25,000 free patient visits a year.

Nonprofit Mission of Mercy funds the effort — which costs about $3 million annually — entirely through donations, said David Liddle, the executive director. Like Jesus Shack, the organization also connects with churches, which Liddle said works well since they can supply parking spaces, bathrooms and a waiting room.

But, Liddle said the group is careful not to proselytize.

“Our patients do realize we do this because our faith calls us to do it,” he said. “But our focus is on dignity, and if you’re proselytizing, you’re stripping people of their dignity,” he said.

Similarly, Jesus Shack’s mobile medical unit staff may ask patients if they can pray for them, but won’t be pushing a religious agenda, said Houchin, the community director.

A LONG ROAD

This month’s first few clinics have been years in the making, said Stewart, who described a lengthy and frustrating bureaucratic process. She’s had to navigate through numerous permits, licenses and insurance policies. And there’s been a steep learning curve for figuring out electronic medical records.

But all of that seems worth it when she can help patients such as Nerida Flavia Salazar, who suffers from back pain. Salazar, a Peruvian who is here visiting her daughter, said she had nowhere else to turn.

The next step will be adding another church to the bus’ circuit this spring. Eventually, the bus can handle about 10 clinics a week. And, that’s about as far as Stewart is looking — for now.

“I used to think I was the visionary but with the Jesus Shack guys, I’m the one with the brakes on,” she said, laughing. “I tune them out and say, ‘Let’s just get this one going.'”