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Open Door Clinic sees spike in insurance inquiries

MIDDLEBURY — With COVID-19 seemingly under control in Addison County, the Middlebury Open Door Clinic (ODC) may soon reopen its doors to area folks with little or no health insurance.
Meanwhile, the free clinic on the Porter Medical Center campus has seen a large spike in calls from people seeking to enroll in state or federally subsidized health insurance plans.
Melanie Clark is the ODC’s health care “navigator.” She helps people find affordable health insurance through Vermont Health Connect or other programs that meet their financial means.
Clark has been particularly busy during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the last three months, she’s seen a 23% increase in interactions — phone and email — with people looking for affordable health insurance. Clark has had 253 interactions with clients since mid-March.
The reasons for the spike in calls is clear, she said. The economic impact of the coronavirus has affected household incomes as many families have been dealing with work furloughs, layoffs, or reduced hours. More people have either lost their insurance or can no longer afford their premiums, Clark explained.
“They are finding ways to decrease their expenses,” she said. “For a lot of folks, health insurance is a big line-item in their budget.”
So Clark reviews their financials and recommends cheaper health care options. Her particular expertise is in Vermont Health Connect (VHC), a state health insurance marketplace created established under the 2010 federal Affordable Care Act. The VHC allows qualifying individuals and families to choose a health plan that fits their needs and budget; both private and public plans are available. These plans, according to the VHC website, include doctor visits, preventative care, hospital stays and prescription coverage.
The customary window for applying for VHC is Nov. 1 to Dec. 15. But that window has been widened to Aug. 14 this year due to the coronavirus.
People earning as much as 400% of the federal poverty guideline can qualify for subsidies through VHC, Clark noted. That 400% translates to $51,040 for an individual, according to federal poverty guidelines for 2020.
There is a caveat, however. You generally can’t qualify for VHC subsidies if you’ve been offered employer-sponsored health insurance, according to Clark.
She wants people to know they should check all of their options carefully, as there are ways to save big money during these difficult times. For example, she urged people with children to see if they qualify for the state’s Dr. Dynasaur. It provides low-cost or free health coverage for children, teenagers under age 19 and pregnant women.
“People, when they get a job, will automatically move their entire family on their employer-sponsored plan,” Clark said. “But a lot of kids are eligible for Dr. Dynasaur. It’s always worth it for people to take a lot at what the eligibility is for that program … because moving from a family plan down to a single plan can save individuals a lot of money, sometimes hundreds of dollars each month.”
She also advises people to get screened for Medicaid eligibility if they aren’t currently working or have had their hours substantially reduced. Medicaid is federally subsidized health insurance.
“I want to make sure people get the services they’re entitled to,” Clark said.
Anyone needing Clark’s help should call her at 989-6872 or email her at [email protected].
Also they may check out opendoormidd.org, and the VHC website at portal.healthconnect.vermont.gov.
Open Door Clinic Executive Director Heidi Sulis anticipates the organization at 110 Porter Drive will soon resume seeing patients in person. The nonprofit has a dedicated staff, including some health care professionals who volunteer their services to make sure the uninsured — including migrant workers — get care.
The clinic usually hosts in-person clinics each Tuesday, from 6-9 p.m.; and on one Friday per month, from 9 a.m. to noon.
Sulis explained COVID-19 has forced the Open Door Clinic (and other health care providers) to resort to phone calls and telemedicine during the past three months. She’s looking forward to resumption of the clinics, as well as a flu prevention efforts this fall.
“I believe we are on the brink of reopening,” she said.
John Flowers is at [email protected].

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