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Community

BlueCross steps in to help Friends In Need with $300,000 matching grant

August 3rd, 2012 4:28 am by SHARON CASKEY HAYES

KINGSPORT -- Cash strapped and struggling for months, Friends In Need has been given a lifeline.


BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation presented the nonprofit clinic for the working uninsured a matching grant of $300,000 on Thursday.


Friends In Need Executive Director Mark Smelser said the funding couldn't have come at a better time.


"Without this grant, we got within about four weeks of having to close our doors. So it was truly a blessing, receiving this grant when we did," Smelser said in an afternoon ceremony.


Friends In Need has been in operation for 17 years, providing primary care to the working uninsured in Sullivan, Hawkins and Scott counties. Patients pay on a sliding scale basis and can receive medical and dental services.


But the clinic has struggled since last year, when Wellmont Health System -- its largest cash contributor -- decided to pull its funding support, leaving the clinic with a deficit of $150,000 a year. Wellmont continues to provide in-kind donations.


To keep operating, Friends In Need was considering becoming part of the Rural Health Services Consortium Inc., a private nonprofit corporation operating 12 medical clinics in eight counties. But that merger never took place, and Smelser started searching for ways to generate funding to save the ailing clinic.


He approached officials with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee in Chattanooga, who then visited the clinic in Kingsport.


Calvin Anderson, senior vice president at BlueCross BlueShield, said Thursday he was impressed by what he saw.


"It is indeed refreshing to see a facility that can do the number of patient visits that it has each year, and to do the work over a broad range of services is indeed important," Anderson said. "It impressed upon us the need and the desire to partner. It wasn't just the dire straits that Mark laid out. It really was the work that was being done and what would be missed if this facility did not have an opportunity to continue."


Since its formation in 1995, Friends In Need has recorded more than 82,000 primary care visits. In 2011, the clinic set a record of 7,644 patient visits -- up 13.3 percent from 2010.


Smelser said Friends In Need has paid staff, but most of the patient visits are handled by physicians who volunteer their time to help. Smelser thanked all the volunteers who have worked with Friends In Need through the years, saying the clinic could not function without them.


But the clinic also needs funding. And Kathy Bingham, manager of the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation, said she hopes the $300,000 matching grant will "get this community on board" to help.


Smelser said the clinic has already approached several businesses and organizations in town to get their support toward the matching grant. So far, the United Way of Greater Kingsport has agreed to donate $50,000 to the clinic, while the Eastman Chemical Foundation is contributing $20,000, and Eastman Credit Union is chipping in $30,000.


"I can tell you that from the beginning, the United Way was behind Friends In Need 100 percent," said Ted Fields, president of the board of United Way of Greater Kingsport.


Etta Clark, with the Eastman Chemical Foundation, said the clinic is vital to the community.


"You don't know how valuable insurance is until you don't have it," she said.


ECU Chairman and CEO Olan Jones said contributing to Friends In Need was "a simple call."


"From our view, Friends In Need helps with quality-of-life issues simply by delivering health care to those who are employed but do not have access to health care," Jones said. "Its mission and purpose hasn't changed -- it just needed a little help."


Dr. Bob Lee, medical director of Holston Medical Group and a longtime volunteer physician with Friends In Need, said every patient should have access to health care, and the clinic helps make that happen.


"And it's an honor to be able to serve them," he said.


Andy McLeod, president of the Friends In Need board of directors, said Thursday's announcements marks the kickoff of the group's public campaign to raise the rest of the matching grant money. He noted that with the contributions from United Way, Eastman Chemical and ECU, the clinic already has raised $100,000 toward its $300,000 goal.


"We've enjoyed a large percentage of our support over the years through individual donors, and we want to grow that. This will help us do that," McLeod said. "Things change, and you're always at risk. But if you have the community behind you, you're much better off."


To make a donation online go to http://friendsinneed.org/ or call 246-0010.

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