Volunteers in Medicine opens Egg Harbor Township location as need rises

{child_byline}NICOLE LEONARD

Staff Writer

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CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Health care rarely comes free, but for some who lack affordable insurance and substantial income, it doesn’t cost them anything to walk through the doors of Volunteers in Medicine of South Jersey.

For 15 years, a group of physicians, nurses, specialists, public-health experts and community health providers has operated volunteer free clinics in Cape May Court House for people who are uninsured or cannot afford to use the health insurance they have.

“Every time I come in here, I learn something new about my health and how to take care of myself,” said Jose, a patient at Volunteers who declined to give his full name to protect his identity.

The same group will open a Volunteers in Medicine location in Egg Harbor Township this month for people in Atlantic County as the future of health care for many remains, at best, on shaky ground.

On Monday, House Republicans introduced the first official plan to overhaul President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. While the new bill does not indicate how many people would be covered, experts say it will likely leave more Americans uninsured.

Jackie Meiluta, executive director of the nonprofit organization, said Volunteers was created to serve as a temporary safety net to support people who were in between jobs, waiting for new health insurance or not eligible for Medicaid.

Meiluta said organizations like Volunteers in Medicine are vital to communities with low-income populations and ones that suffer economic hardships, especially in Atlantic and Cape May counties.

“There are people still slipping through the cracks,” she said. “And many of these people are working poor. Managing things like diabetes and obesity can be too expensive, even if they do have some coverage.”

The majority of patients who used the free clinic services in 2016 were from Cape May Court House, Wildwood and Villas in Lower Township, and were between 30 and 59 years old.

Those communities often rely on a seasonal economy where work is plentiful in the summer but scarce in the winter.

The first South Jersey clinic opened in 2002 in an old Masonic Lodge on Route 9 down the road from the Cape May County Park & Zoo. It was bought for the organization by Cape Regional Medical Center and renovated into exam rooms, medical supply areas and specialty-care areas.

The top patient diagnoses seen at the clinic in 2016 were hypertension, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and tobacco dependency.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the Cape clinic held its first diabetes D-Day event, aimed at helping patients with disease management and improved control. The clinic relies on donations, grants and partnerships to run its services and programs.

With help from a CVS Health Foundation grant, health experts attended to patients as they rotated in and out of rooms to get their blood pressure taken, blood-sugar levels checked, feet examined, eyes checked and medications reviewed.

Without the free event, experts said, they doubt their clients would be able to get the same quality of care insured residents get. For many of these chronic illnesses and diseases, volunteer physician Dr. Elizabeth Crowley said, quality care is critical, regardless of insurance.

Crowley started seeing a small number of patients this week at the new Egg Harbor Township location, which is open for client registration and in need of volunteer health experts and other community members.

Meiluta said the organization was approached by a private family foundation last year with the offer to provide $100,000 each year to duplicate the services provided in Cape May County in Atlantic County, which has seen economic struggles as casino closings contributed to unemployment.

“We don’t just give people a handout. We teach them how to use the system,” Meiluta said, “whether that’s helping them sign up for Medicaid, other federal programs, housing and employment.”

The new clinic in Egg Harbor Township will be the fifth Volunteers in Medicine location in the state. The Court House office was the 13th established location in the country. There are now 93 clinics nationwide.

Meiluta said she foresees demand for supportive programs and services like Volunteers in Medicine increasing as a result of either the continuation of the current health care market or federal and state changes.

Experts say the number of uninsured residents statewide will increase if something like the Medicaid expansion in New Jersey were to roll back its coverage.

“We operate as a culture of caring here,” Meiluta said. “People need us, and sometimes we’re the only place they can go.”

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{child_related_content}{child_related_content_item}{child_related_content_style}Just The Facts{/child_related_content_style}{child_related_content_title}N.J. HEALTH UNINSURED ESTIMATES, 2014{/child_related_content_title}{child_related_content_content}

Atlantic: 15.1%

Cape May: 12%

Cumberland: 15.1%

Ocean: 12.1%

New Jersey: 12.6%

Source: {span}U.S. Census Bureau, Small Area Health Insurance Estimates{/span}

{/child_related_content_content}{/child_related_content_item}{child_related_content_item}{child_related_content_style}More Information{/child_related_content_style}{child_related_content_title}VOLUNTEER{/child_related_content_title}{child_related_content_content}

Volunteers in Medicine is looking for medical professionals, currently practicing or retired, and residents to volunteer at the new Egg Harbor Township location.

Call Jackie Meiluta at 609-463-2846 or email jmeiluta@vimsj.org for more information.

{/child_related_content_content}{/child_related_content_item}{child_related_content_item}{child_related_content_style}If You Go{/child_related_content_style}{child_related_content_title}VIM FUNDRAISER{/child_related_content_title}{child_related_content_content}

When: 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday

Where: Avalon Links Restaurant, 1510 Route 9 North, Cape May Court House

How much: $28 per person

More info: Call or email Jackie Meiluta for tickets at 609-463-2846 or jmeiluta@vimcmc.org. Visit vimsj.org for more event information.

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Contact:

609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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