Free Medical Clinic Seeking New Patients in Charleston Hospitality Industry | News

Offering benefits like time off and health insurance to hourly workers is a relatively new concept at restaurants and hotels in Charleston. Many still do not offer these services to non-employees.

Through its Hotel Inclusion Project initiative, the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic on Johns Island is helping fill a statewide coverage gap by providing free healthcare, referrals, emergency care and some prescription services to qualified uninsured hotel workers in downtown Charleston, although you don’t. You don’t have to be a home worker to be eligible to receive regular clinical care.

Those who live or work on Johns Island, James Island, Wadmalaw Island, Folly Beach, Meggett, Ravenel, Hollywood and Walterboro can also receive care at the clinic.

“We want to make them a medical home,” said BIFMC medical director Dr. David Peterseim.

What does that mean exactly? According to Peterseim, clinic nurses and doctors want to establish care with their patients and see them regularly. In addition to primary care, patients have access to doctors in 19 sub-specialties, such as cardiology and gynecology. The clinic’s strategic partnership with Roper St. Francis Healthcare means patients can get free lab tests, cancer screenings and X-rays, as well as emergency care at Roper, as long as they register before urgency.

“You have a quarterback and a quarterback with all kinds of support, from pharmacy to radiology to invasive procedures, all waiting to see what you need next,” Peterseim said. “You don’t have to chase after the emergency room bill that will come if you weren’t registered.”

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A certified not-for-profit organization, BIFMC’s workforce includes nine paid staff and 130 volunteers, including nurses, nurse practitioners and physicians.

“‘What’s the catch?’ is what some people think,” Peterseim said. “No bills are generated for the care provided by the 37 doctors who work here every month.”

The center was opened in 2008 by two retired doctors, Arthur Booth and Charlie Davis, who wanted to create a clinic that could treat working adults. Initially serving the Johns Island community and surrounding islands, in 2018 BIFMC opened a new clinic across from the parking lot of the old one. With this state-of-the-art facility resembling a normal outpatient doctor’s office, BIFMC has since expanded its coverage areas, bringing approximately 1,000 patients to its doors each year.

A member of the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, BIFMC follows the 299% poverty guidelines when deciding who is eligible for care. Uninsured people between the ages of 18 and 65 in BIFMC’s service area must earn less than $40,634 per year to qualify, while couples earning $54,746 can visit the clinic. (Each additional person in a household adds $14,112 to the upper limit.) Patients must qualify annually.







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Left to right are David Peterseim, Coleen Cuffy, Marisa Lynch, Tawnia Becker, Lucy Montes, Brenda Falls, Susan Higgins and Amenah McDougal. Parker Milner/staff


BIFMC’s patient population was at an all-time high before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to clinic director Brenda Falls, who said the biggest hurdle was raising awareness of their presence. With seven exam rooms, BIFMC has room to nearly double its capacity.

“We were just doing a lot of pulling, seeing some of our highest numbers we’ve ever seen, and then COVID hit,” Falls said. “If you don’t constantly create awareness, people really don’t know we’re here.”

“One of the biggest barriers to getting patients is that adults don’t realize they’re eligible,” said Carrie Moores, director of development and communications at BIFMC. “In my mind, those who work in the hospitality industry are kind of the perfect example of someone who would qualify in a clinic like ours.”

BIFMC can be a resource for the more than 100,000 South Carolinas who fall into the insurance coverage gap.

A decade has passed since the United States Supreme Court first upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, but the court did so with a caveat. One of the central principles of the ACA – an expansion of the low-income Medicaid program to cover all adults who fall below the federal poverty level – became optional, with the court ruling that states could not be forced to participate in the expansion of Medicaid. Many states immediately decided the deal was too good to refuse, while several others, including South Carolina, pulled out. Palmetto State remains one of 11 states that have yet to expand the Medicaid program.

“Typically, these low-income adults who rely on our services do not receive health care benefits through their workplace, or they work multiple part-time jobs without the benefits of a single full-time job. This is especially true among those in the hospitality industry,” Moores said. “I would say around 75% of our patients are currently working at least one job, with many working as many as two or three jobs and still not being able to afford healthcare.”

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Many of the clinic’s volunteers are retired doctors who still want to help those in need. Peterseim, who previously worked as a heart and lung surgeon at Roper for 15 years, was inspired to do more volunteer work after living temporarily with his family in Costa Rica, where he performed surgeries at a free clinic.

“There are a lot of people who need care, so I got more involved in this project,” Peterseim said.

Some volunteers are active providers, including a dermatologist who closes his private practice every two weeks to work at BIFMC, while others use their clinical work as a technical training ground as they pursue a career in medicine.

Diana Osorio spent 165 hours caring for patients at BIFMC, a job that will soon help her become a full-time nurse practitioner.

“You see everything from regular visits to ‘You have to go to the ER today,'” Osorio said. “What we do here is so important to the patients we see.”

Prospective patients can learn more about the clinic and complete an application at bifmc.org.

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