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'Nowhere else to go': Georgia Highlands celebrates 40 years of health care for those in need
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Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan speaks during a celebration luncheon for the 40th anniversary of Georgia Highlands Medical Services on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

In 1979, Sister Kathryn Cliatt and Sister June Racicot founded the George E. Wilson Memorial Health Services Inc., a clinic aimed at providing medical services for those in need in rural Forsyth County.

Over the years, the center grew, added doctors, became the first provider of OB-GYN services in the county, expanded to other locations and, in 1987, changed the clinic’s name to Georgia Highlands Medical Services, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary.

Officials with Georgia Highlands recently hosted a luncheon complete with celebrations and comments from current and former employees, awards to community partners and addresses from Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan and U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Lawrenceville).

CEO Todd Shifflet said due to the unique nature of the center, many may not even be aware of its role.

“It’s not only a very complicated concept, but it’s kind of an innovative concept,” Shifflet said. “First of all, we’re a community-based provider. We’re a private non-profit ... There is a board of directors who are from the four different locations.

“We provide care to the uninsured but we are not a free clinic.”

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Georgia Highlands Medical Services CEO Todd Shifflet, left, presents an award to Northside Hospital Forsyth Administrator Lynn Jackson on Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, during a luncheon celebrating Georgia Highlands' 40th anniversary. - photo by Kelly Whitmire

Instead, the center provides care for nearly 19,000 patients in five centers in Bartow, Cherokee, Dawson and Forsyth counties. More than half are uninsured and 75 percent are in poverty.

Beyond primary medical care, the service provides family practices, pediatrics, geriatrics, integrated behavioral health, pharmacy, interpretation, immunizations, health education, community outreach and other services in the community.

During the ceremony, awards or special honors were given to: Julia Garner, the organization’s first executive director; Dr. Paul Behrmann, the center’s first physician; and Northside Hospital Forsyth Administrator Lynn Jackson, who received the Commitment to Care Award, given “to recognize someone that champions community health and works to make a real difference in the community.”

Jesann Hendrix, who served as a board member 1996-2019, gave a history of the center and said it started in a trailer off Hwy. 9 before moving to a building on Canton Highway in 1980 and to the facility at 260 Elm Street in 1994. Hendrix praised numerous employees over the years and recognized current and former board members.

Duncan said being from Forsyth County gave him “instant credibility” across the state due to the local school system and place at the top of many rankings and said the medical center was among the reasons for that status.

“Georgia Highlands is also one of those things that we also get so right: how we look at health care and how we embrace the community mentality around health care,” Duncan said.

Duncan said he would like to see an increase in similar centers in other communities in Georgia.

Similarly, Woodall praised the health service and its stewardship.

“When I look at this picture [of the staff], all I see are folks who could be doing anything they want to do anywhere they want to do it, but they chose to serve here,” Woodall said. “When I look at the payroll list for any federal agency, I don’t walk away wrapped up in a blanket of security that every tax dollar is being spent as wisely as it can.

“I look at the folks on the Georgia Highlands team, I know every penny is being squeezed.”

Though the event was a chance to look back at all that had been accomplished during the last 40 years, Shifflet said Georgia Highlands is even brighter.

“Sure it was different in 1979, in some ways it was so very different,” he said. “I was a little kid in 1979, don’t over-romanticize it. What we’re doing today, what we’re going to do in the future is just as important as what we did in 1979. The people who we serve every day, people who have nowhere else to go, are the same kind of people we were serving back then.”