Free clinic provides much-needed care to community

Harvest Free Medical Clinic is located on the former Navy base.

Despite the advent of the Affordable Care Act, many Charleston area residents lack health insurance. Their precarious situations can be exacerbated when residents faces chronic medical problems that require routine follow-up and medications.

In 2003, upon his retirement from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), Dr. Bob Freeman set out to help remedy the situation with a nonprofit health clinic out of a trailer in North Charleston’s predominantly Hispanic Midland Park community. For the past 13 years, the Harvest Free Medical Clinic (HFMC) has dispensed gratis health care and an extra dose of do-good.

The patients that come through the doors of the clinic, now located on the former Navy base at Detyens Shipyards, have nowhere else to turn. They don’t have the insurance or financial means to seek care for persistent conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, hypertension and mental health disorders that necessitate repeat visits.

“Many seem hopeless,” said clinic director Dr. Marty Smith, explaining that the Christian-based organization does more than simply treat patients’ medical issues, aiming to also nurture a support system within the local community and engage clients in spiritual conversation.

“When it comes to caring for the underserved, most of the time, people see the volunteer of the day. Here, patients see the same physician each time. Doctors have a relationship with patients, an ability to know their story, their living and work situations, the difficulties they’re dealing with,” he continued, noting that the clinic handles anywhere from 3,500 to 6,000 patient visits a year and keeps electronic records for every one.

Leaning on partnerships with local lab companies, an imaging center and the neighboring Detyens Shipyards Medical Center, the nonprofit can also provide on-site lab work and dispense medications free of charge. Oversight from a licensed pharmacist means the clinic can purchase primarily generic medications at wholesale prices. Over the past two years, the organization has spent roughly $38,000 annually on medications and written an average of 13,000 prescriptions. Considering three-quarters of those scripts are for 90-day supplies, the math boils down to a cost of just over $1 per medication per month, an expense that the clinic gladly absorbs.

“The HFMC pharmacy lets us remove another barrier for those who have no resources to pay for medications while also allowing us to better monitor patients’ adherence to prescriptions,” Smith said.

To create this medical home model, 10 volunteer physicians serve on a regular schedule; another 30 pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, mental health counselors, social workers and nurses round out the volunteer force. Indeed, the nonprofit has grown tremendously since the days when Freeman served as sole provider for patients. This year, HFMC hired Smith as its first full-time employee. And the group continues to host the MUSC rotation that first delivered him to its office as a fourth year, demonstrating for students the positive effects of careful listening, physical exams over expensive testing, cost-effective health care and whole patient wellness.

By balancing evidence-based medicine with cost-containing practices, Harvest Free Medical Clinic is able to provide quality care without billing clients a cent. The nonprofit relies entirely on individual, corporate and private organization donations to sustain its clinic, with zero dollars gained from government agencies, grants or fundraisers.

“It’s a privilege to take care of neighbors in need without having to rush, without billing or coding, and with a nod to the spiritual,” Smith said.