Uninsured or underinsured? Hope Medical Clinic offers 'accessible, quality health care'

·5 min read

This story has been updated to correct the name of Hope Medical Clinic Executive Director Tim Roberts.

The Destin area is renowned for its beautiful beaches and booming tourist economy.

But for many service and hospitality workers who help fuel the economy, obtaining health care can be a struggle.

In Okaloosa and Walton counties, over 80,000 people are uninsured, and free and charitable clinics are the only place for them to receive proper medical treatment without suffering a massive financial cost.

There is a local organization for them to turn to, but that organization is seeking partners to help it keep up with the need.

Hope Medical Clinic in Destin and Freeport has a mission to provide "accessible, quality health care for the uninsured and medically underserved populations of Okaloosa and Walton counties." The clinics provided free primary, specialty and pharmaceutical treatment for over 5,000 uninsured patients this past fiscal year.

Volunteer physician Dr. William Liston talks with Cora Sternberg, nurse operations manager at the HOPE Medical Clinic in Destin. HOPE Medical Clinic has about 5,000 active patients served from offices in Destin and Freeport.
Volunteer physician Dr. William Liston talks with Cora Sternberg, nurse operations manager at the HOPE Medical Clinic in Destin. HOPE Medical Clinic has about 5,000 active patients served from offices in Destin and Freeport.

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During the clinic's last fiscal year, Hope Medical Clinic distributed $1.8 million worth of free medication, $6 million in care and provided 911 surgeries.

"We're concerned that our community isn't aware of what's happening here and what role we play in keeping this a healthier community," said Tim Roberts, executive director of the clinic. "When you think about 5,000 patients receiving the type of care that they're getting here, that's a large workforce that's getting their health care from our clinic. If we weren't here, that would be a lot of people flooding the ERs and the urgent cares."

Walton and Okaloosa counties do not fund either of Hope Medical Clinic's locations due to the counties not classifying the regions as "rural." Florida counties designated as "rural" typically provide funding for free and charitable clinics while clinics in "non-rural" counties do not receive funding.

From left, HOPE Medical Clinic staff Layne Britton, Genessis Martinez, Catherine Castillo and Anna Dawson work on patient cases at the Destin clinic. HOPE Medical Clinic has more than 50 volunteers from the medical profession, who help provide care to those in need from clinic offices in Destin and Freeport.
From left, HOPE Medical Clinic staff Layne Britton, Genessis Martinez, Catherine Castillo and Anna Dawson work on patient cases at the Destin clinic. HOPE Medical Clinic has more than 50 volunteers from the medical profession, who help provide care to those in need from clinic offices in Destin and Freeport.

Funding for both locations primarily comes from grants and federal programs that are often program specific. For example, the Health Resources and Services Administration is currently providing 700 COVID-19 vaccines to both insured and uninsured individuals accompanied by a $50 Walmart gift card with each vaccination.

The clinic additionally partners with pharmaceutical companies to prescribe free hepatitis C medication, which costs approximately $1,000 per pill.

While these forms of funding greatly contribute to certain components of the clinic, Roberts said the clinic needs more donors and local foundations to join their donor base to cover more general programs.

"We want to make sure that the community is aware of what's going on so that we can appropriately partner with programs in the county or hospitals," Roberts said.

The downside of a tourist economy

Alicia Jannethe Zuniga, who works in the food service industry, has been a patient at Hope Medical Clinic for seven years.

"The clinic is one of the best things that she's ever discovered, especially because she's uninsured," Zuniga said through a clinic translator. "If her friend hadn't told her about the clinic, she never would have found out what the community was doing and how free clinics allow others to receive free health care."

HOPE Medical Clinic has its own pharmacy and volunteer pharmacist to ensure that patients get the medications they need when they leave the clinic.
HOPE Medical Clinic has its own pharmacy and volunteer pharmacist to ensure that patients get the medications they need when they leave the clinic.

Dr. William Liston, co-medical director, Board of Directors member and retired trauma surgeon, has been working at the clinic for five years, answering nurse practitioners' questions and seeing patients.

Primarily working at the Destin branch, Liston describes the unique sociomedical situation he has encountered with the clinic's patients.

"Even though we're in a very affluent area, there's a huge population of people who are not served particularly well," Liston said.

While the clinic takes patients from various regions, 19% of patients are from Destin and 37% are from Fort Walton Beach. The provider largely serves working, uninsured patients who typically occupy tourist-heavy and seasonal services that do not provide medical insurance.

Undocumented people are treated without any change for standard procedures, unless a service is needed from a partnership that cannot serve undocumented individuals. Even when they encounter those barriers, the clinic will continue to treat the patient to the best of its ability.

A health care home for the community

Roberts and his team believe the clinic is more than just a provider of basic medical needs.

"We define ourselves as a health care home versus a primary care home. We help get people through the whole process," Roberts said.

The Destin and Freeport locations contain a licensed pharmacy and a lab that conducts basic blood work, pregnancy tests and drug tests. There are 35 specialty volunteers in the clinics providing services including oncology, dermatology, orthopedic and more.

Volunteer physician Dr. William Liston talks with Cora Sternberg, nurse operations manager at the HOPE Medical Clinic in Destin. HOPE Medical Clinic has about 5,000 active patients served from offices in Destin and Freeport.
Volunteer physician Dr. William Liston talks with Cora Sternberg, nurse operations manager at the HOPE Medical Clinic in Destin. HOPE Medical Clinic has about 5,000 active patients served from offices in Destin and Freeport.

Roberts said the 10-minute appointment standard at most free clinics is not suitable for the patients they treat. Instead, they opt for 30- to 45-minute appointments.

A third of Hope Medical Clinic's practice deals with co-morbidity cases, or patients with multiple life-threatening illnesses such as congestive heart failure or diabetes. All patients are screened for exposure to trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse and neglect, due to studies showing individuals exposed to severe trauma have shorter life expectancies.

The clinic utilizes an interdisciplinary team approach to deal with co-morbidity cases. For example, counselors, social workers and behavioral health experts work with the primary care team and nurse case managers to treat high-complexity cases.

The nurse case managers are a key component when networking with different services within the community. Current partnerships and sponsors include Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital, Fort Walton Beach Medical Center, Cadyceus Society on the Emerald Coast, Americares Medical Outreach and more.

Volunteer Catherine Castillo,  a licensed practical nurse, takes the vital signs for patient Alicia Zuniga at the HOPE Medical Clinic in Destin.
Volunteer Catherine Castillo, a licensed practical nurse, takes the vital signs for patient Alicia Zuniga at the HOPE Medical Clinic in Destin.

Hope Medical Clinic provides treatment for all uninsured individuals and individuals who make individual makes less than 200% above the federal poverty level.

If a patient qualifies for Medicaid or Medicare, the clinic will help the individual apply and will treat the patient until the application is approved.

Hope Medical Clinic's Destin branch is located at 150 Beach Drive in Destin and is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The Freeport branch is located at 16019 U.S. Highway 331, Business Unit #10 in Freeport and is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.

For more information, visit hopemedclinic.org.

This article originally appeared on Northwest Florida Daily News: Hope Medical Clinic in Destin, Freeport gives health care to uninsured