Volunteers in Medicine will expand their reach

When you walk into the waiting room, patients are talking together quietly. Staff and volunteers at the desk greet the next person in line in easy Spanish. A doctor, a mother and a three-year-old boy are laughing in the hallway.

Great Barrington houses the largest free health clinic in Massachusetts, says executive director Ilana Steinhauer. At Volunteers in Medicine (VIM), patients can see a primary care physician and a psychologist, check their teeth and their eyes — all in the same building — and talk with a community health worker about wider concerns, school, rent, food, childcare and more, in the language where they are most comfortable.

Founded in Great Barrington 20 years ago, VIM now sees some 1300 patients a year — people who, outside of VIM, would have little to no access to health care at all. Steinhauer sees the need growing, and VIM is rising to meet it.

VIM serves people working for and supporting the Berkshires, she said. On a spring morning, she explained how VIM has grown.

Colleagues meet to talk at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM
Volunteers in Medicine

Colleagues meet to talk at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM

Q: Who does VIM serve?

A: VIM provides Healthcare for people between the ages of 18 and 64 who are not eligible for health insurance — people between jobs, newly arrived asylum seekers, veterans, essential workers who have lived here for decades, people who work too few hours to qualify or can’t afford co-pays and deductibles.

And today many of the patients VIM serves are immigrants. In the Berkshires, we have growing communities of Latinx, West African and Asian families. Massachusetts has strong healthcare, but we have 10,000 immigrants in the Berkshires, and many are ineligible for health insurance.

We have grown to the point that VIM is expanding into Pittsfield. We are expanding our staff and volunteer base and readying a new office space. We have broken ground at 199 South St., at the site of our new location.

Colleagues and friens laugh at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM
Volunteers in Medicine

Colleagues and friens laugh at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM

Q: What leads to your planned expansion?

A: The idea has come from the staff. We have an increasing number of patients, and more than half live near Pittsfield now. Of the 1300 or more patients we serve each year, in 2019, we served 261 patients in the central Berkshires — and in 2022 we reached 524. So we see the need growing.

Having a central location also gives us more reach to expand northward and to expand our programming. We are already working with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition and others. And we can offer more central programming: support groups, financial literacy, even cultural events.

A doctor and patient touch hands at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM
Volunteers in Medicine

A doctor and patient touch hands at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM

Q: How does VIM provide care?

A: Our medical providors are volunteers — many are retired and willing to give their time, and we also work with medical residents, including nursing students and residents through Berkshire Medical Center, Tufts dental school, Springfield Community College and more.

VIM works with 160 volunteers over all, and 60 are clinical — in nursing and medicine, psychology and psychiatry and social work, optometrists and dentists. We also have medical assistants on staff and volunteers to help with translation, transportation and patient care.

Illuminated letters frame a person in the waiting room at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM
Volunteers in Medicine

Illuminated letters frame a person in the waiting room at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM

Q: What makes VIM’s approach to care unique?

A: We focus on our patients, we get to know them, and we create plans to treat not only immediate concerns but elements in their lives that can strongly influence their health — housing, food security, childcare, education … With enough trust, people can ask questions and ask for support, and we can hold them and help them navigate complex systems while empowering them so they can gain their footing.

I remember one student in kindergarten at Muddy Brook Elementary School — he came to the Berkshires with his father, and he missed his mother and baby brother, who could not come because the baby was too little. He missed his family …

We worked with the school, and with Berkshire South, to bring him into in programs where he could meet people, and his father could go to work, knowing he was cared for. His father can’t be healthy if his child is sad.

We work with many community partners — Berkshire Medical Center and the City of Pittsfield, the Berkshire Immigrants Center, the Elizabeth Freeman Center, Berkshire Literacy Network, Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, United Way, Latinas413 and many others.

A doctor checks the health of a patient at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM
Volunteers in Medicine

A doctor checks the health of a patient at Volunteers in Medicine in Great Barrington. Press photo courtesy of ViM

Q: What happens when a patient needs hospital care?

A: Massachusetts has a health safety net fund meant to protect rural hospitals, so our patients have access to hospital care. And the preventive care we give also eases the burden on our local hospitals — 80 percent fewer ER visits and 20 percent fewer hospitalizations.

During Covid we worked with one of the most high-risk populations. We helped people to find housing so they could quarantine. We worked on rent relief. And among our 1300 patients, none were hospitalized and more than 98 percent are vaccinated. It shows the importance of preventative care and connection.

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