It was not an altruistic sense of selfless service, but an anger stirred by injustice, that God used to motivate a Christian woman with no experience in administration to call area health-care providers and community leaders to action. County Health Bureau and Wellness borne of the frustrations of an emergency-room nurse fed up with the increasing numbers of primary-care patients buried beneath the overwhelming burden of the acutely ill and injured of a level one trauma center, who waited six to eight hours to be seen because they had nowhere else to go. These were patients who did not qualify for state or federal programs, who had no access to insurance through their place of employment, and who lacked the financial resources to access care independently.
The first organizational meeting took place in July 2002, and the clinic opened its doors in December of that same year. Since a true source of care to the poor and uninsured was desired, and not just a Band-aid solution, a three-phase implementation plan was developed. Phase One included the willingness of the clinic to set up and tear down in a "borrowed facility" such as a church basement once a week. Although access to care once a week might address chronic conditions, it would do very little to address acute illness or injury. Consequently, Phase Two, projected for years two through five, introduced a dedicated facility, part-time paid staff, and services offered two to three times weekly. Recognizing the fact that the service area in north central Illinois was rural and spread out over 843-plus square miles, the task force proposed “mobilizing” clinic services in some degree in years five through ten. During that time period, Bureau County Health and Wellness Clinic would need to take its services out to towns and villages in surrounding areas and utilize clinic resources and experience in order to help adjacent counties establish their own services.
The actual demand for services was greater than the initial needs assessment indicated, as area plant closings and factory lay-offs drove the clinic into premature growth. The clinic opened its doors with one foot already squarely in Phase Two. Rather than utilizing a borrowed facility, BCHWC was offered the use of a building in downtown Princeton, Illinois, the seat of the proposed service area. That building allowed the clinic to provide access to care three mornings each week. Staffed by 100% volunteers, BCHWC had 13 physicians who donated their time and services to see patients on a rotating basis.
God is amazing, and as the clinic stayed dedicated to the vision God had provided, God met our every need. That is not to say BCHWC was without humble beginnings. The first facility offered two exam rooms divided by a curtain. The eye chart required patients to perform their eye test in the middle of the waiting room, generally to the quiet applause of other patients and their families. The “formulary” consisted of donated samples in a filing cabinet so small it required the nurses to preview the patients scheduled in order to predict and track down the necessary medications the doctors would need to treat the patients. The laboratory services were limited to CLIA-waived bedside testing performed in the exam rooms. But as our reliance on God increased, so did our faith, and God continued to enlarge our territory.
It was the end of that first year when Bureau County Health and Wellness Clinic was first introduced to Christian Community Health Fellowship. BCHWC was a free clinic in the truest sense. There was no third-party reimbursement or governmental support. As an entity in its infancy, community support was still quite guarded. In order to meet the demands placed on the clinic, BCHWC applied for a grant through Compassion Capitol Campaign. That grant was the beginning of a long and beneficial relationship between BCHWC and CCHF. Not only did they provide the necessary funding to introduce paid staff, but their “Nuts and Bolts of Getting Started” conferences helped to bring up that staff with experience in grant writing, board development, budgeting, staff and volunteer recruitment/retention, as well as the spiritual challenges of providing health care to the poor, the staff and “coaches” at these conferences prepared the well-intentioned but inexperienced staff at BCHWC to serve more successfully.
By the end of 2004, BCHWC was able to move into a building that offered four times the space due to the generosity of Covenant Children and Family Services. As the patient population continued to double each year, the rate of patient visits doubled as well. The new space allowed For three separate exam rooms, which increased the effectiveness of the physicians’ clinics by almost doubling the number of patients seen by each provider. The annual budget had gone from $10,000 to $80,000 without a solid donor basis. That was when BCHWC received a grant from CCHF to hire a development coordinator to help facilitate financial support.
As the clinic grew operationally, it was also necessary to develop the administration and the governing board. A well-matched mentor was introduced to the administrator at BCHWC through CCHF. That relationship served to bring BCHWC administration out of the “begging for crumbs” mentality that can keep free clinics underdeveloped and replaced it with a "look what we can do for you” perspective. The clinic was becoming a viable entity in health care. It was at this point that the area hospitals, encouraged by a Hospital Impact Study showing a reduction in uninsured visits to the local emergency department one year after the introduction of free clinic services, finally agreed to provide limited ancillary testing For BCHWC patients.
Strategic planning seminars and national conferences offered by CCHF continued to build leadership capabilities at Bureau County Health and Wellness Clinic. By utilizing the experiences of others who had walked the same path, mistakes could be avoided and proven solutions could be implemented. Despite the differences in size, budget, geographic location, and even the populations served, clinics providing health care to the poor and underserved all had the same problems. The conferences offered by CCHF brought clinics from all over this country together to share those problems and a variety of solutions.
As BCHWC developed over the years, the benefits that came above and beyond the specific objectives of those conferences changed. At first, the hope of survival was poured into by the clinics who had already survived their first decade. Then there was the encouragement of seeing those that were developmentally where BCHWC had already been. Finally, there was the energy that can be created only by sharing what has been learned with others. Through it all, CCHF provided an environment that bolstered the spirituality of all involved. It offered a constant reminder in the midst of many trials and tribulations to remain loyal to our mission, showing the love of Christ by meeting needs.
Bureau County Health and Wellness Clinic now has over 1,700 patients who rely on us for primary health care. Patient visits this year will top 5,000. True to the vision provided in our initial Implementation Plan, the clinic currently has established one satellite clinic in DePue and just opened another in Mendota on March 1, 2007. A neighboring county utilized BCHW Clinic as the prototype for a free clinic in Ottawa, Illinois. God has done amazing things in this rural Illinois free clinic and has accomplished many of those miracles through the efforts and dedication of the Christian Community Health Fellowship. All glory to God and our beloved Savior, Jesus Christ!
by Heather Tinker, RN, BSN, Executive Director of the Bureau County Health and Wellness Clinic in Princeton, IL