Open Door Clinic provides COVID-19 info and services to marginalized Vermonters
In a difficult time like this it is important for Vermont residents to understand the healthcare resources that are available, especially for treating COVID-19. During the pandemic the well-being of Vermont residents has been a top priority for officials and institutions on federal, state and local levels.
However, even with the incredible response that Vermont has made to provide more-than-adequate healthcare and preventative services, these resources are ineffective if they’re not being used. It should be clear how all Vermont residents, regardless of insurance status, can get the support they need.
In order to gain a more comprehensive view of the resources available locally, I spoke to Paola Meza, the Patient Services Coordinator at the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury. The Open Door Clinic is a free health clinic that provides healthcare for uninsured and under-insured adults in Addison County.
In this interview, Meza spoke about various healthcare resources, including the work of the Open Door Clinic, that serve as a support system for uninsured Vermont residents. For uninsured residents, several programs exist to support COVID-related costs. Under the HRSA COVID-19 Uninsured Program, the state received federal funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration to cover COVID-related testing and treatment for uninsured Vermonters. In addition, Vermont Medicaid will cover the costs for emergency COVID treatment of undocumented Vermonters that cannot be reimbursed with HRSA funds.
In light of these resources, in most cases COVID healthcare is free, even if someone is uninsured.
“Both COVID testing and COVID hospital care are free for patients in Vermont because there are programs (like the HRSA program) that hospitals can bill COVID costs to,” Meza said.
The free resources available in Vermont are not limited to testing and treatment. Another great resource is COVID Support VT, a free and confidential hotline for anyone seeking information, support, and guidance for any issues or stressors related to COVID. You can talk with a COVID Support VT counselor by calling 2-1-1 (866-652-4636), option #2, from Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Support calls are confidential and free.
While there are many positive changes to the healthcare system in Vermont this year, there are still many things that can be improved upon. Meza raised concerns that the “Department of Health needs to continue their outreach efforts with transparency and urgency to combat misinformation,” as there are a lot of misconceptions about COVID, including regarding the severity of risk that still exist in Vermont. In addition, many people affected by COVID who do not have primary care physicians have a hard time getting clearance to return to work, which can be frustrating and economically challenging.
Another challenge that Meza highlights is inconsistent language accessibility. Some people living in Vermont speak only Spanish or another foreign language, and they have difficulty with English, which can pose difficulties in signing up for a COVID test and can present barriers to receiving adequate care.
The Open Door Clinic is a useful resource to combat these shortcomings, providing support and guidance for uninsured individuals that need help figuring out the next steps. According to Meza, the Open Door Clinic “serves as the medical home for uninsured and underinsured Vermonters, including seasonal workers and migrant workers in Addison County,” a role that is important in decreasing some of the healthcare barriers that exist.
As one of nine free and referral clinics in Vermont, Open Door Clinic “staff triage several calls a day from symptomatic and asymptomatic Vermonters who need help figuring out next steps for testing, quarantining, and accessing care.” For example, the Open Door Clinic provides assistance for individuals, some of whom do not speak English, with registering themselves and their family for COVID-19 pop-up testing, a necessity for scheduling testing appointments and receiving test results.
In addition to providing guidance on testing and treatment, the Open Door Clinic has engaged in outreach to make sure that people have the supplies and information they need to protect themselves from COVID. Meza said at the onset of the pandemic the outreach nurse “went out to about 50 farms in Addison County to distribute “‘COVID kits’ containing hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, hand soap, toothbrushes and floss, condoms/lube, over-the-counter pain relievers, thermometers, oximeters, handmade masks (donated from amazing community volunteers!), and information about the COVID in Spanish, as well as information about the clinic.”
The Open Door Clinic has since added to its COVID educational services. This fall, it hired an additional staff person to support the outreach nurse and serve as the COVID educator. The outreach team visited 34 farms and gave out over 300 free flu vaccines, and the COVID educator presented an interactive and culturally relevant presentation in Spanish around the facts and myths about COVID at all the farms.
This and other examples above are just a few of the ways the Open Door Clinic is supporting Vermont residents during COVID. Among other roles, this clinic provides referrals for COVID testing of uninsured symptomatic patients and offers free COVID testing at local farms where there are migrant workers who have recently arrived in Vermont. As Meza noted, the Open Door Clinic is also in communication with the Department of Health “around free COVID vaccination distribution because we are the healthcare home for a special population.”
As I learned about through my conversations with Paola Meza, the Open Door Clinic is doing amazing work to support marginalized Vermont residents, especially during this challenging year. From free healthcare services to language support, the Open Door Clinic is reducing a lot of the health disparities that would otherwise severely affect marginalized populations in Vermont. Although the Open Door Clinic has been a pillar of strength for healthcare services in Addison County, there is still much work to be done in Vermont. Meza highlights that it is necessary to change Medicaid income eligibility and the overall eligibility requirements for insurance so everyone, including undocumented people, can enroll.
In addition, the rural nature of the state encourages a physician shortage, meaning many people in Vermont have trouble even getting to a clinic or hospital.
“While telemedicine has shown to be a successful way of getting people on their appointments, the technology can pose another challenge to patients without compatible devices or stable broadband access,” she said.
Therefore, it is vital that Vermont invest in building infrastructure for widespread broadband internet to allow more access to physicians. Though there are many positive aspects to the Vermont healthcare system, there is so much more that can be done to ensure that no one struggles with accessing proper medical care.
It is important that all Vermont residents understand how to access healthcare, especially during this pandemic. For uninsured residents, there are COVID coverage programs like the HRSA COVID-19 Uninsured Program that ensure free testing and treatment as needed. In addition, for those that are uninsured and face extra barriers, the Open Door Clinic is an incredible service that goes above and beyond for its patients. While these are difficult times to navigate, there are a lot of resources for residents when it comes to accessing healthcare.
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