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April 16, 2014

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Free medical clinic opens with goal of increasing access to care

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Justin M. Bowen

Dr. Florence Jameson founded Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada, which opened a clinic Friday near the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Pecos Road. The group, composed entirely of volunteers, hopes to open more clinics in the valley and Northern Nevada.

More information

  • The Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada clinic is located at 4770 Harrison Avenue, Las Vegas. For more information call 994-3760 or go to vmsn.org.

Volunteers in Medicine

Maria Torneskog is one of the first patients to be treated at the new Volunteers in Medicine clinic in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Clinic Location

For all the controversy over its proposal to provide free health care in a public park, Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada quietly opened its clinic doors last week.

And organizers already are planning their next community health clinic.

“We want to be the first state to tell all the other states that we have universal access to health care,” said Gard Jameson, husband of the physician who launched the effort to provide free medical care to uninsured residents. “It’s not just driven by government, but by the people.”

The people in this case are doctors, nurses and others who want to help, he said.

“There’s a huge population of health care providers who genuinely operate out of goodwill,” he said. “Most are genuinely interested in helping the community.”

Heading the effort is obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Florence Jameson, who grew up in a family with no health insurance. Two years ago she started mobilizing the medical community to start a free clinic — and her success appears unprecedented in Clark County.

The clinic, which opened Friday in Paradise Park, near the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Pecos Road, accepts no payment from patients and is staffed entirely by a pool of about 400 volunteers: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, clerks and housekeepers.

The clinic belies the perception that health care in Las Vegas is driven by profit and insensitive to the needs of patients. High-profile scandals have given some local doctors a bad name, but do not accurately reflect the medical community, Gard Jameson said.

The Jamesons say their work has only begun. Clark County’s uninsured population was estimated at 350,000 in 2009 and is growing as the recession continues. Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada has a preliminary agreement to purchase another property in a low-income section of Las Vegas and is hoping to open a third clinic in Henderson. Its goal: to provide primary care to every uninsured Clark County resident. Then they want to do the same in Northern Nevada.

It took two years to open the first clinic. Some neighbors said the clinic should not be allowed in the public park because the uninsured patients would bring crowds, clutter and crime.

The Clark County Commission granted the nonprofit organization almost free use of the building in July, but with conditions. The lease limits the operating hours and the total number of patient visits to 6,000 in the first year, and requires the clinic to provide security and monthly updates to Commission Chairman Rory Reid, who represents the neighborhood. In addition, visits are by appointment only and all patients must be documented residents of the United States — which goes against the organization’s desire to provide care to any person who needs it, regardless of citizenship.

Fundraising was a second hurdle. Las Vegas does not have a reputation for philanthropy, but Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada is fully funded for its first year, with no debt.

The state Legislature provided $200,000 of the $500,000 used to renovate the 5,000-square-foot clinic, which has five examination rooms, two procedure rooms, a pharmacy, waiting room and office space. The $400,000 needed for first-year operating costs is also in the bank.

The clinic is unique in many ways. It’s surrounded by trees and a public swimming pool in the park, which creates a “healing environment,” Florence Jameson said.

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John Berger, greeter at the Volunteers in Medicine, says, "I want people to feel as welcome as they can ... I enjoy being able to help in a small way, whether it's with their application or getting them a drink of water. I've been in a lot of medical buildings and I've never seen a greeter."

An outdoor courtyard is carefully manicured with colorful flowers, and patients were welcomed at the door Friday by a volunteer who looks like Mr. Rogers. John Berger, 82, wore a red cardigan, khaki pants and a big smile. Volunteers in Medicine refers to its patients as friends and neighbors. Berger, who is retired after a career working in a casino card room, was the official greeter, and welcomed patients with a handshake and an offer to help.

The first patients in the clinic, Kurt and Maria Torneskog, have been unemployed since September. Maria got a part-time job recently, but it’s only 20 hours a week at $8 an hour — not nearly enough to pay for health insurance.

Dr. Romaldo Aragon had previously seen the couple at his offices, for free. He works 11-hour days four days a week at his own practice and started treating people for free on weekends in 2008, he said, because his patients were losing their health insurance.

“I’m so attached to my patients and they kept on coming,” said Aragon, who is active in the Filipino community. “It’s my way of giving back to the community.”

Aragon said the volunteering builds goodwill, which leads to referrals and more opportunities.

He came under the Volunteers in Medicine umbrella because it gives him liability protection and his patients access to drugs and testing.

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Maria Ramirez is one of the first patients treated at the Volunteers in Medicine clinic in Las Vegas.

Another patient, Maria Ramirez, had to be taken into the examination room in a wheelchair. Her husband, Miguel, had repaired cars, but he has needed to take care of his wife full time since the onset of symptoms that could be multiple sclerosis. Six months ago, Volunteers in Medicine helped her apply to the government for disability assistance, but the paperwork is still being processed, officials said.

Timothy Newton, a third-year medical student at Touro University Nevada in Henderson, translated from Spanish to English for the Ramirezes. He is originally from Illinois but said working with a group like Volunteers in Medicine makes him interested in staying in Las Vegas — which has a severe shortage of doctors.

“It’s that much more exciting to stay here knowing that there are these kind of opportunities,” Newton said.

CORRECTION: The Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada clinic in Paradise Park is limited to 6,000 patient visits a year, not 6,000 patients a year, as was previously reported. | (January 29, 2010)

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