A new free medical clinic in Lander offers care to low-income Fremont County residents who lack insurance. It joins Wyoming’s other free clinics in Laramie, Cody and Jackson.
The nonprofit Lander Free Clinic opened Feb. 6, and a month later, Executive Director Kevin Wilson said it already has 20 patients.
“It’s pretty tremendous for us,” he said, adding that the facility planners forecasted about 75 patients for the entire first year.
Most new patients heard about the clinic via word of mouth, he said, and include everyone from grocery store employees to those working in the trades.
“Some of them are even working for the government on a seasonal basis, and they don’t have qualified health care coverage, nor can they afford it,” he said.
Wilson performed a community-needs assessment and surveyed residents before starting the clinic, using his training as a master’s degree student in nursing. He found that 400 people in Lander and more than 3,000 people around Fremont County were uninsured and made less than 200% of the federal poverty level, he said. Both of those metrics are requirements to qualify for the clinic’s services.
“So, it was like ‘Yup, there’s a definite need in our community,’” he said.
While enrolled tribal members have access to Indian Health Services on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Wilson found that their non-native partners or some multiracial relatives do not.
“We have patients right now from Riverton, Lander and Fort Washakie,” he said.
Official planning for the clinic started in late 2021, but Wilson said it takes time to work through all the regulations, secure funding and obtain equipment.
Mind the gap
The clinic has started seeing patients as thousands in Wyoming are expected to lose their health care coverage. Because federal COVID-19 emergency declarations come to end in May, the Wyoming Department of Health is reevaluating who can stay on Medicaid after being required to maintain that coverage during the pandemic. It estimates 10,000-15,000 residents will be removed because they no longer qualify.
Legislators also didn’t approve Medicaid expansion again this year over fears about relying on the federal government. The WDH estimated about 19,000 Wyoming residents would have been covered over two years if the state approved expansion.
Lander resident Bruce Palmer advocated for Medicaid expansion, “so I’ve been getting frustrated with the lack of response from our legislators, and this seemed like it was a way that I could actually positively impact things, is by getting involved with the free clinic.” He is chair of its board of directors.
Palmer added that his time in politics — going door to door and serving on the school board — has shown him the need in his community. About 37% of kids attending the Fremont County School District receive free and reduced-price lunches, according to the district website.
“There really is a lot of poverty that, depending upon where you go to church or who you talk to or whatever, you may not see — but it’s definitely there,” he said.
While the clinic will help the community, Palmer said, he worries about the state dropping more people from Medicaid than the facility will be able to cover.
“I don’t know what that looks like for the free clinic necessarily, but yes, there is concern that demand would outstrip our ability to provide,” he said.
Wilson also added that the clinic has limited treatment options. It provides access to primary care physicians, lab tests, lower-cost imaging and reduced-price or free medications, he said, but it can’t cover higher-priced items.
“We’re getting [patients] back on their diabetes medications, we’re getting them back on their blood pressure medications, we’re getting them preventative cancer screenings,” he said. “We can’t pay for a patient to get a hip replacement, or a knee replacement, or [cancer care] … That’s where Medicaid helps these people a ton.”
The clinic welcomes volunteers, Wilson said, though it is looking for those with medical backgrounds in particular. He assures volunteers that malpractice insurance is covered by the federal government.
“We got you covered. You don’t have to pay anything for that,” he said. “So both retired and still-working health care providers, health care professionals; [the clinic] definitely can always use more of those.”
The free clinic does have an AmeriCorps VISTA staffer working around 30 hours a week, Wilson said, but most of its staff consists of volunteers. That includes three medical doctors, four nurse practitioners, a physician assistant, a doctor of physical therapy, a registered nurse, a board, a steering committee and himself.
Wilson estimates he put in about 1,500 volunteer hours for the clinic, alone. On the side, he also works as a nurse at the county jail.
The Lander Free Clinic is operating out of rooms freely provided by the Trinity Episcopal Church, and is open by appointment. To contact the clinic, email email@example.com or call (307) 349-0363.