The federally funded Medical Reserve Corps was created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to assist the public during times of crisis with the help of medical and non-medical volunteers on staff.
But since there have been no natural or manmade disasters in North Central Florida recently, local corps volunteers have had to find other ways to stay active and busy.
So far, it looks like many of them are succeeding.
Every month the Levy County MRC holds a free, after-hours clinic for uninsured residents 12 years and older in that county. The clinic, set up outside the Levy County Health Department, has offered services every last Wednesday of each month since January 2011.
“We used the health department facilities and we began doing this monthly clinic and people could come on in and see a doctor and get prescriptions, get health checks, or whatever it might be,” Fred Eichler, former emergency preparedness planner and the first coordinator of the Levy County MRC, said.
“We can treat anything, just like a walk-in clinic could.”
Yet despite Levy County being ranked 51 out of 67 counties in overall health, attendance at the after-hours clinic is relatively low. Anywhere between 8 to 14 people come to the clinic on any given month since its inception, said Mark Johnson, the current Levy County MRC emergency preparedness planner.
“We’ve been scratching our heads about it,” Johnson said. “People don’t come in unless something hurts.”
Johnson said both he and Eichler have run advertisements and even left fliers in local businesses to try to drive the traffic up and bring in more patients.
“We’re trying to reach the hidden population,” Johnson said. “The more we can get in touch with them, the more welcome they are, we really want to welcome them in.”
At the same time, if too many patients showed up, they could overwhelm the MRC’s 29 members, Johnson said.
For those who do attend, the after-hours clinic may be their only form of medical care.
Tina Courtney, who has been coming to the after-hours clinic for years, has no alternatives when it comes to healthcare. She said it was the care offered by MRC staff or no care at all.
“I am a diabetic, so I need to see someone more often than I am,” she said.
Debbie Spurr has been attending the after-hours clinic for two years.
“I don’t think people know that they’re accredited doctors,” Spurr said, “that they can draw blood and write prescriptions.”
“I wouldn’t have any other medicine,” she said. “I’m going on 50-years-old and it’s impossible to get insurance.”
Pamela Myhree, a registered nurse from a gynecologist’s office in Ocala, has been volunteering as part of the Levy County MRC for 5 years, since it began in 2009.
Myhree said that when the clinic first began, it was much more popular than it is now, but she couldn’t pinpoint an exact reason why.
“It comes in spells,” she said of the patients. “A couple have graduated. But a lot of people have transportation problems.”
The Levy County MRC also tries to make its clinic more welcoming by partnering with a local food pantry, The Children’s Table, to provide a box of food for the patients as they exit. Johnson, the current coordinator, said he drives out to the Children’s Table and non-medical MRC volunteers assemble the boxes to give to patients free.
Alachua County doesn’t have the attendance problem that its neighboring Levy County does, said Brad Caron, emergency preparedness planner for Alachua County’s MRC.
Alachua’s MRC has 127 volunteers, and some of them even go over to Levy County to volunteer, Caron said.
The number of volunteers allows the Alachua County MRC to not only see uninsured citizens but underinsured, including those on Medicaid.
Within the next few months, an all MRC-staffed medical facility will open in Northeast Alachua, Caron said. The date and location are not solidified as the project is just in its beginnings, but Caron said there is no shortage of patients.
In Marion County, there are 83 MRC volunteers who work with outreach programs in the community. The MRC members have volunteered in free clinics that reach out to the underinsured like veterans, said Randy Ming, the county’s MRC director.
Ming had MRC staff ready to provide care at the Freedom Clinic in Ocala, a large community outreach clinic that was brought together by many medical professionals in the community. There is no regular free clinic for the underinsured or uninsured in Marion County.
Johnson and Caron’s MRC have also helped public schools get children vaccinated through the FluMist program. Caron’s MRC also travels to places like migrant worker camps to provide health care for the under and uninsured.
With UF Health Shands and other medical facilities based in Gainesville, Johnson said the local MRCs are lucky to benefit from the influx of medical professionals.
“I think we have one of the best equipped and supplied [MRCs] in the nation. Alachua County is very fortunate to have the group it has,” Caron said. “The need is there and as long as the need is there, my unit will respond.”
Editors note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the number of MRC volunteers in Marion County at 83, instead of 468, as previously reported.