George Webb was chatting with a friend in front of the local drugstore when I said hello in downtown Williamson, West Virginia. I asked this long-time resident, retired businessman and Army veteran what he thought about the new health clinic in the works. “I think it will be a nice thing when it gets up and running. I’m gonna talk to a lot of people about it. And I will go. I’m in pretty good health, but you know, you never know when you’ll have to go.”
Webb used to run a family construction and drywall company in the tri-county area on the edge of Kentucky and West Virginia, in the heart of coal mining country. He’s a retired deputy sheriff and still serves his community as a volunteer firefighter, as his badge denotes. I asked what help he needs with medical coverage. “I’m getting arthritis, I notice that, it might help some on that. Since I’ve retired I’ve got that Medicare, I don’t have Medicaid, I’ve got Medicare, it don’t pay much.”
Teresa Varney works as a shift leader at the local convenience store. She’s also curious about a free or low-cost clinic, “I think it’s a great idea because there’s a lot of people around here who don’t have health coverage and could use it.” Varney said she wasn’t even aware that the clinic would be powered in part by an array of photovoltaic panels.
The medical doctor overseeing the new Williamson Health and Wellness Clinic already runs a family practice on the main level of the building. Dr. Donovan Beckett also chairs the Williamson Redevelopment Authority, which works with other community groups. I asked Beckett why he’s donating his time to this effort, which has already included some free care given in his regular office space. “As to donating my time, I have always helped my patients with no insurance. With the recent downturn in the economy and the job loss of many, I thought the timing was good to reach out to some people in need. We started it on Good Friday this year and I had about 90% of my staff volunteer their time as well.”
A community snapshot on a WRA-related website shows that about a third of adults in surrounding Mingo County go without health insurance. The local community has long struggled with high poverty and unemployment rates, and one in four adults has not completed high school. The rate of obesity is high, which medical experts know can lead to problems like diabetes.
Beckett and other community leaders are doing more than helping sick patients who can’t afford to pay. They’re prescribing help for an ailing community by starting with simple outreach programs that address diabetes prevention. Beckett says, “many studies show diet and exercise can be very effective in controlling and improving diabetes. Daily walks of 30 minutes and participating in a Diabetic Education class to learn what foods to avoid and consume are also effective. We are just trying to change the current fast food mentality.” Community efforts to provide healthy alternatives include a Farmers’ Market that supports local food.
A coalition of support for the clinic has included the JOBS Project, an organization trying to improve lives in Appalachia through renewable energy. JOBS Project founder and CEO Eric Mathis says about 20-percent of power used to run the health clinic will come from the solar array atop the building. The facility planned to have five exam rooms is on schedule to open in early 2012, pending final grant funding. Mathis explains, “It’s gonna be a federally qualified health clinic, with stimulus money. Specifically money that came down through the health care bill is actually providing funds for creating these types of rural health clinics to provide much needed services to those who would otherwise not be able to afford it.”