Dr. Reiko Johnson starting free health care in Seacoast: What to know and how to help

By: Karen Dandurant
Portsmouth Herald
Fosters Daily Democrat

Read the full article on Fosters Daily Democrat

PORTSMOUTH — A local family physician is about to bring free health care to the greater Seacoast and Tri-City areas for people who are without health insurance or are underinsured. And she hopes to recruit more people willing to help her make this venture succeed.

Dr. Reiko Johnson will begin her free clinics Jan. 10 at the Cross Roads House in Portsmouth and the Willand Drive Warming Center in Somersworth. The program, Volunteers in Medicine-New Hampshire (VIM-NH) is modeled on a nationwide group of free health care clinics.

Johnson said she is drawing on her experience volunteering for five years with a former free clinic in Hampton, which was founded by Dr. Jay Kaminski, ran for 18 years and closed in 2016.

Dr. Reiko Johnson, seen Thursday, Dec. 1, 2022, is starting a free medical clinic, initially at Cross Roads House in Portsmouth and the Willand Drive Warming Center in Somersworth, starting in January 2023.

“I learned so much from being there, observing and experiencing the free care that was provided,” she said, noting the clinic ran in front of a soup kitchen in a borrowed mobile van. “It ran with very little funds, without much need for grants or big fundraisers. It had limited hours and scope so that it didn’t encroach on other health-care systems. … Nurses and social workers helped patients find resources and follow up. Local hospitals donated services and supplies. The providers were local docs that came once a month in three-hour shifts, and it was very doable.”

While initially, the VIM-NH clinic will only be offered for clients of Cross Roads House and the Willand Drive Warming Center, Johnson said her hope is to expand free health care to more people and more locations.

Johnson’s plan is for VIM-NH to complement per diem work she already does for Greater Seacoast Community Health. Greater Seacoast operates Families First in Portsmouth, Goodwin Community Health in Somersworth, and a Mobile Health Services program that serves low-income and underserved people who meet income guidelines and may not be able to afford medical care. In addition to primary care services, it offers care coordination and access to behavioral health services.

Coreen Toussaint, registered nurse and manager of Mobile Health Services at Greater Seacoast Community Health, said the VIM-NH clinics will be a good complement to the services her team provides during mobile health clinics, including one at Cross Roads House, as well as the services available at Families First in Portsmouth and Goodwin Community Health in Somersworth.

 “The VIM-NH clinic can serve residents who are only available in the evenings,” she said. “Dr. Johnson’s vision is that after she provides acute medical care during the VIM-NH clinics, she would connect patients with Families First or Goodwin health centers for ongoing, comprehensive services. So the VIM clinic serves as an entry point for patients to get into a medical home where they can get ongoing primary care, behavioral health, prenatal care, family services, WIC, and more. This partnership is a way to remove barriers for people who have trouble getting medical services and get them into consistent, long-term care in the health center. We look forward to working together to help those in need.”

Johnson said an important part of their mission is to make sure the patients have continuity of care, follow-up and connect to community resources.

“Since we are not primary care providers, we will be referring patients to Families First,” she said. She said Toussaint will also volunteer at the Cross Roads House clinic, which will help make those connections.

Leaders of Cross Roads House and the Willand Drive Warming Center say they are thrilled to be able to provide medical care for their clients.

“I think having medical supports that are able to come into the community and provide critical supports is tremendous,” said John Burns, executive director of SOS Recovery Services, which is managing the Willand Drive Warming Center for winter 2022-23. “The majority of those we serve in an emergency warming shelter often find themselves unable to access traditional medical services and supports. … We hope other social service agencies and providers will collaborate as well to break down access barriers for our friends and loved ones who are vulnerable and marginalized. It’s refreshing to work with partners who are putting their hearts and souls into lifting up our community.”

Cross Roads House is serving as an overnight warming center for Rockingham County this winter season, adding to its mission and increasing the need for free medical care.

“We are thrilled with this,” said Will Arvelo, executive director of Cross Roads House. “Pre-COVID we worked with Families First to provide health care to our residents. During COVID that became more challenging. We are working again with them and we welcome this new connection. You have no idea how powerful it is to have our residents receive consistent health care.”

“They may have significant underlying health issues,” he said. “Then there are young families with children. Having this happen on site is so important as many people here have mobility or transportation issues. There is such a need for this service in the Seacoast area, and we are looking forward to watching this happen.”

Johnson said she founded VIM-NH in March 2021 after “running into” the Volunteers in Medicine America website while doing research. And it was inspired, in part, by her past experience in Hampton.

Johnson said the VIM-NH clinic at Cross Roads House, where she will begin seeing patients in January, is roughly based on the Hampton Free Clinic model. She said her plan is to begin offering care on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month, hours to be determined.

“I believe that sustainability for a free clinic is essential, so that is why we won’t be purchasing an expensive van,” she said. “Using existing space that is trusted and utilized by the community — like shelters or community centers are where VIM-NH plans to see patients. We want to reduce … barriers for patients to access care.”

The goal for VIM-NH is to create a mobile health unit or team that will travel to areas that have high needs.

Johnson said she will offer urgent care type services such as care for COVID, strep, influenza and other respiratory illness. She will treat infections, asthma, hypertension and other chronic ailments.

She said primary care provided for children and adults may include:

  • Acute issues such as respiratory infections, basic suturing, and skin rashes.
  • Chronic disease management including hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and gout
  • Treatment of musculoskeletal injuries or conditions.
  • Evaluation and treatment of mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression;
  • Work and school physicals.
  • Vaccine administrations, such as COVID vaccine, tetanus, and flu shots.
  • Point of care laboratory testing including urinalysis, pregnancy test, blood glucose, HgA1c, rapid strep, rapid COVID test, and rapid flu test.
  • Pharmacy services to meet basic formulary medication needs; vouchers for local pharmacies to reduce patient’s medication costs.
  • Intake for referrals to existing resources, such as initiating applications for health insurance, food stamps, and other community organizations.

Johnson said she has assembled a great team to get started, but still seeks help. She welcomes more volunteers, and donations of basic medical supplies and even funds to help sustain the free health care mission.

“Our volunteer team consists of licensed healthcare workers and nonclinical volunteers to help out with many tasks,” she said. “We have been so fortunate to have a great team from the beginning.”

One volunteer, she noted, is St. Thomas Aquinas High School senior Alyona Latsilnik, who is a licensed nursng assistant, who she has known for 10 years.

Johnson said using the VIM mobile free clinic model, her goal is to develop an active roster of licensed health-care workers in New Hampshire who wish to volunteer their time and to make the process of volunteering simpler.

“Many of us want to contribute, but don’t always know how or when,” she said.

Johnson said once she gets the clinic going in 2023, her next goal is to partner with dental colleagues.

“We get frequent visits involving dental complaints — like pain, abscess, and challenges finding a dentist,” Johnson said. “Across the country, Volunteers in Medicine clinics partner with their dental colleagues and provide free dental care to patients in need. It would be incredible to provide a quarterly free dental clinic day in the near future. If there are dentists out there wanting to collaborate with us, let us know. Involving students would be a great way to do it, too.”

Johnson hopes her effort is only part of a wider effort to bring health care to people who need it.

“I would love to see this become a movement that grows, so to anyone interested in getting involved, I am here,” she said.

Those who wish to volunteer can go to vimnh.org/volunteer for information. Johnson encourages anyone who wishes to provide donations or assistance to email her at mrjohnson@vimnh.org.

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