A group of individuals who support Lee County Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) are celebrating their second anniversary of providing free healthcare to the residents of Lehigh and other areas of the county.
But in the midst of celebration, financial problems are looming for the free clinic's operation.
The celebration consists of what they are calling a "BBQ For Hope" and Dr. Stephen P. Schroering, one of the leaders along with several supporters in Lehigh, are hoping for a big turnout to raise money for what he calls the struggling free medical center at 1154 Lee Blvd., in Suite 2, just off East County Lane.
Lee County Volunteers in Medicine logo
Schroering is an orthopedic surgeon and a Fellow of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.
The cost of the barbecue is $10 and it is scheduled for Saturday, July 6 from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Microtel Inn and Suites at 1320 Business Way in Lehigh.
The Compassionate Care Clinic in Lehigh was opened in May of 2013 and it free to those who have no money or insurance.
Generally, those who need medical help may call 368-8080 or stop by the clinic during the day between 9 to noon and sometimes later.
Executive Director Andrea Kuzeyt said the clinic is operated with volunteers. There are no medical personnel on hand, but an appointment can be made for those who qualify. And the way it works, volunteer physicians set up appointments for the client, she said.
"To qualify you must have no insurance and live in the area and you must be within 200 percent of the federal poverty index for your family size. We provide complete free medical care through our clinic for those that do qualify and we are the only all free medical clinic in all of Lee County," said Schroering.
But he says the clinic is struggling despite the fact that they have seen more than 1,000 patients since they opened the clinic two years ago.
"We are struggling financially; we have had very little community financial support since our opening. Lehigh Regional Medical Center in Lehigh was one of our largest financial supporters but this was withdrawn two years ago, but they still support us with $700 a month. It used to be $2,500 a month
"HMA, owners of LRMC, has recently donated $10,000 just this month," Schroering said.
"Though we do not have any pro bono support services in the Lehigh community hospital, they recently have asked us to sit down with them to work on a discounted fee schedule for those services," Schroering said.
He also noted that the Medical Staff of Lehigh Regional Medical Center was also a loyal supporter until January of this year when they withdrew their support which was $2,000 per month.
Schroering said there are those who continue to help the clinic all they can. They include the Kiwanis Club and the Knights of Columbus which provide quarterly and annual support.
"In all of Lee County, we have one church that supports us through monthly Bingo revenue and that is Saint Raphael's Catholic Church on Lee Blvd. in Lehigh," Schroering said.
But financial problems are serious for the clinic and Schroering said outside of HMA (owners of Lehigh Regional Medical Center), there are no other large corporate supporters within the whole county except that just recently Radiology Regional in Lehigh is now donating $500 monthly in radiological diagnostic services.
Schroering, who had an orthopedic medical practice in Lehigh for years, moved to Punta Gorda, but is still very active in supporting the free clinic in Lehigh.
The free clinic only provides services to adults, not to children.
It is of great concern, Schroering said, that they do not have any "hospital support services" from Lee Memorial Health Systems or Lehigh Regional Medical Center.
"By this I mean that we do not have any donated diagnostic services, such as X-rays, MRIs, CTs, labs, hospital admissions, and diagnostic services.
"This one issue has been stifling for us. If I see a patient in our clinic with an abdominal tumor, and then send them to one of our participating gastroenterologists, he needs to know where he can send them to get a CT scan and where he can take them for a colonoscopy.
"Without access to these services, the doctor's hands are tied. There is nothing he can do. When we first opened our doors, we had 32 volunteer specialty doctors and some have since resigned over this one issue," Schroering said.
He noted that the clinic cannot appropriately evaluate and treat patients without access to these services and Schroering said the doctors were correct.
"They feel they are being placed in a precarious position by not being able to appropriately evaluate these patients and they are. So they have resigned," he said.
Schroering also said he as the representative of the clinic have had discussions with Jim Nathan, who heads Lee Memorial Health Systems, which includes the Cape Coral Hospital, Gulf Coast Hospital, and HealthPark Medical Center, all public hospitals.
"We talked about financial support and support 'by providing us hospital ancillary services' and he has never put a foot forward. He says that clinics such as ours have all failed from the lack for specialty physician support.
"But Mr. Nathan just doesn't see the full picture. The only reason we have had specialty physicians resign is because of this one reason no access to hospital support services. So by not having evaluations it is not because these physicians simply do not want to volunteer," he said.
And Schroering said that is not true as Nathan suggests. Schroering said it is because Nathan has decided not to do help us by providing these services. He went on to say that the problem is created by the lack of willingness to help.
"Mr. Nathan has not even been willing to give a six or 12-month trial," he said.
"What is actually at risk of losing for a hospital system of this size during a short trail period? It just doesn't make any sense," Schroering said.
The Lee County Volunteers in Medicine's Clinic belongs to a national organization called Volunteers in Medicine which now has nearly 100 free clinics across the U.S. Schroering said their mentor in forming Lee County Volunteers in Medicine was the Virginia B. Andes (VBA) which is well funded as a free clinic in Naples.
"But we in Lee County have very little funding and donor support. The VBA clinic has the support of all three hospitals in Charlotte County. Each donates $30,000 annually and each provides ancillary hospital services including two hospital admissions each per month if necessary,
In return, the VBA estimates that each of the three hospitals saves nearly $1 million a year in emergency room diversions of patients to the free clinic that would have otherwise been seen in one of their emergency rooms or a saved admission to the hospital by an uninsured patient.
"That's quite a bang for your buck for $30,000 they save $1 million and yet, Lehigh Regional Medical Center and Lee Memorial Health Systems don't seem to be interested in helping," Schroering said.
To stay afloat to be of help to those who need the services the VIM clinic provides, Schroering said new sponsorships are needed. Those who can provide financial support should contact him at 941-6372663.
"We can't even afford to advertise our services to the needy public because we don't have the money," Schroering said.
Despite the financial problems in the Lehigh clinic, Schroering said that a new free clinic will be opened in the Harlem Heights area of Fort Myers within the next month in collaboration with the Heights Foundation.