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Community health centers offer safety net

Chip Ellis
After losing their insurance, James and Carol Toney of Cross Lanes landed in a safety net at a local community health center. "We feel very lucky to have found it," James Toney said.

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A few weeks after James and Carol Toney lost their health insurance last year, they kept an appointment with their regular doctor.

"When we got there, the woman out front told us we couldn't see him without insurance," said James Toney, 63.

"We were shocked . . .  . He'd been our doctor for years. We thought he'd at least talk with us about it, maybe work out a sliding scale. But the minute you lose that insurance card, I guess they don't know you."

Toney had retired after 37 years spent maintaining machinery at Brewer & Company, a sprinkler business based in Charleston.

"I loved my job," he said, but his wife's 90-year-old mother had moved into their Cross Lanes home, and "somebody has to be with her all the time."

He and his wife, a former janitor, planned to buy insurance, but they found it cost too much. With their mortgage payment, "It was either lose the house or go without insurance."

So, like 253,000 other West Virginians, they went without insurance. Of those uninsured, six out of ten either work now or are retired, according to a WVU study.

"We never expected to be in that situation," Toney said. "We were lost. We didn't know where to turn."

He and his wife are diabetic and have high blood pressure. "Her insulin costs $200 a bottle, and she's got to have it," James Toney said.

"We went through a very scary time," Carol Toney said. "The money you think you've tucked away, it goes quickly, let me tell you. We even tried a fly-by-night insurance deal we saw on TV, but it didn't cover much of anything."

They didn't know they could get sliding-scale care at a community health center. They didn't know they could get their medicine for little or no charge through WVRX, the state-sponsored pharmacy.

Their blood pressure was rising, but they had no doctor. In an emergency, "we would have had to go to the emergency room and try to make payments."

By luck, they stumbled across a program at a FamilyCare community health center.

Carol Toney and her daughter went to the Big Lots on Patrick Street in Charleston. "We noticed a place called FamilyCare next door to Big Lots, and my daughter said, 'Mom, let's go in there and see if it's anything that can help you.'

"It was one of the best things we ever did," she said.

FamilyCare is one of 160 federally funded community health center offices scattered around the state. Nobody is turned away for lack of insurance or money.

"We didn't know such things existed," Carol Toney said. "We were flying blind and ran into it."

The FamilyCare nursing staff has helped James Toney stabilize his blood pressure. They signed them both up for free medication through WVRX, operated by West Virginia Health Right. A FamilyCare social worker helped arrange a few hours a week of Medicaid in-home care for their mother. The doctor discovered James had an eye problem "that would have caused me to lose my eye."

"We aim to help patients take control of their own health," said J.D. Simpson, director of the FamilyCare center at Patrick Street.

The Toneys pay FamilyCare on a sliding scale. They also qualified for hospital care through the Community Access Program, a collaborative program between Charleston Area Medical Center and four community health centers: FamilyCare, Cabin Creek Health Systems, New River Health Association, and Hygeia Facilities Foundation.

The staff helped each of them make a detailed medical plan designed to control their diabetes and high blood pressure and any other health issues. Because they qualify for CAP, they qualify for care at CAMC.

As part of health reform, the state will soon launch an aggressive campaign to let working uninsured people know about these services. Health care reform will pump millions into expansion of community health centers. All recently enlarged their facilities with stimulus dollars.

Besides medical checkups, FamilyCare and other health centers offer diabetes and high blood pressure classes, prenatal and childbirth services, diet counseling, labs and X-ray, social workers who help people resolve stressful situations, dental, legal and other services.

"The people at FamilyCare have treated us like family," James Toney said. "The good Lord's always taken care of us, and this time he opened a wonderful door. You couldn't ask for any better care than we've had from them."

Reach Kate Long at katelong@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1798.


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