Vermont’s Free & Referral Clinics Find New Ways of Caring
Throughout 2020 – a year in which Vermont’s Free & Referral Clinics (VFRC) marked its 25th anniversary as a statewide coalition – the COVID-19 pandemic presented daunting and unprecedented challenges for VFRC’s nine member clinics.
At first, most clinic operations around the state shifted to utilizing a variety of remote technologies to provide as many health services as possible to vulnerable Vermonters. Free clinics in Barre, Bennington, Middlebury, Rutland, and White River Junction pivoted to telehealth services in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, before returning early last summer to the mix of both in-person clinic visits and telemedicine that remain in place today.
The four VFRC clinics that refer for care in their communities – located in Burlington, Randolph, Springfield, and Windsor – all switched seamlessly to providing referral services remotely via telephone, helping Vermonters to sign up for health care coverage, assisting with finding lower cost or free prescription drugs, and connecting patients and clients with other community services at a time of extraordinary stress and concern.
The experience of the Rutland County Free Clinic in Rutland exemplified the way in which each of the nine VFRC clinics pivoted to new, even expanded ways of caring throughout this most difficult of years. The emphasis for each clinic, more so than ever, was on staying compassionately connected with the people and communities they serve.
One of the things that the Rutland caregivers opted to do was to significantly expand the number of wellness check-ins with their large roster of patients. “There’s always two sides to every coin. The need for our services didn’t stop with the shutdowns. If anything, our patients needed us more than ever. We sat ourselves down and asked, ‘What can we do differently? How can we continue to serve the people in other ways?’” said Tia Paolino, the Executive Director of the Rutland clinic. “That allowed us to connect in new and different ways that were very well received and appreciated by our patients and volunteers,” she added.
“That good work will carry on, post-COVID,” Paolino continued. “We started doing more wellness calls and check-ins by phone, simply asking our patients, ‘How are you doing? Are you feeling okay? Would you like to know about the next pop-up testing opportunity for the virus?’ There are many things we want to continue to do when this pandemic is over.”
Each of the nine VFRC clinics responded to the trials of the coronavirus pandemic with creativity, sensitivity, compassion, and aplomb. Here are some of their stories from the past year. From Bennington to Burlington and Rutland to White River Junction, we all look forward to a healthier, brighter future for all Vermonters.