VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - What started out as a two-room free health clinic at the Oceanfront, created in 1986 by two physicians to help the working poor, is closing.
More than 150,000 patients have walked through the Beach Health Clinic's doors over the past 35 years. The once-bustling health care clinic is now barren, but it's not bad news - it's actually bittersweet.
"We were the old-fashioned, free clinic. You could come with nothing and see a doctor," said Susan Hellstrom, Beach Health Clinic's executive director.
It was a free clinic where everyone knows your name.
"This is is like family. I've been here that long, and I'm familiar with all the doctors," said patient Wendy Knight.
Knight has been a patient at the Beach Health Clinic for 15 years.
"I got a divorce, and the insurance went with him," Knight said. "They welcomed me with open arms, and I got all the care I needed."
Visits, medications, referrals, even a quadruple bypass for Knight — all at no charge. It was a last resort for her and countless others.
"We figured we donated over $80 million worth of free care to the community, which is huge," Hellstrom said.
They've done it through grants, as well as doctors like Dr. Mary Maturi Allen donating their time and expertise.
"I just wanted to help the less fortunate people," Maturi-Allen said.
The clinic was established to help the working poor - people who couldn't afford health insurance but also didn't qualify for Medicare.
"We asked for a donation of $3 a month that would help pay for running the pharmacy," Hellstrom said.
The clinic had its peak around 2012 to 2015, with 2,700 unduplicated patients. Between 2019 and 2020, 80% of the patients left the once-overflowing lobby.
"Medicaid expansion took away our patients," Hellstrom said.
The Affordable Care Act had a hand in that, too, with 500,000 Virginians gaining coverage by December 2020.
"A few people started a clinic, and 35 years later, it's had over 10,000 volunteers and $80 million worth of care given. It's almost like, 'mission accomplished.' It's exciting to think we're not needed anymore," Hellstrom said.
Patients like Knight walked through the clinic for the last time Thursday, getting a last-minute checkup before her new insurance kicks in.
"It was a blessing. Someone sent me here, and I had excellent care my whole journey here," she said.
If you still need free health coverage and are 200 percent below the federal poverty level, there is a free clinic open, still: Chesapeake Care Clinic.
For information about qualifying for Medicaid and Affordable Care Act eligibility in Virginia, click here.