Dr. Carrie Hamilton went on a mission to Haiti in 2010 with the Christian Medical Dentistry Association to help give care to those impacted by a devastating earthquake. But while she was there, she couldn’t help but think of her community back home in Forsyth County.
After about 22 years working as a pharmacist, now at Northside Hospital Forsyth, Hamilton still sees patients who regularly don’t receive care because they can’t afford medicines, dread expensive hospital bills or simply don’t have health insurance.
“I love going on medical missions, but there is a lot [to do] right here at home,” Hamilton said. “And there is even more now with the economy and inflation, and people are just really struggling.”
So as she was caring for others in Port au Prince, she promised to bring that same help back to her community. Now, more than ten years later, Hamilton has helped lead the opening of the Forsyth Community Clinic, a free health center serving Forsyth County residents without insurance.
How it got started
When Hamilton came back home in 2010, her first mission was to become more involved in the community. She took her time meeting with medical professionals in the state before also joining Leadership Forsyth where she met many others in the community willing to buy into the idea of a local free clinic.
Together, they formed a governing board in March 2018, and they established the Forsyth Community Clinic as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit within the year.
The board is now made up of local nonprofit and medical leaders including longtime Forsyth physician Dr. Shannon Mize; Northside Hospital Forsyth COO Lynn Jackson; Georgia Highlands Medical Services CEO Todd Shifflett; Joni Smith, former executive director at The Place; and many more.
Through the past five years, Hamilton has chaired the board as they laid down the groundwork for the new clinic, finding medical and other professionals willing to volunteer, working with state officials and Georgia’s large free clinic network to receive required permits and finding a space where they could serve patients.
Board members continued this work even through the pandemic, meeting with leaders virtually to ensure they could open as soon as possible with a high-quality level of service.
“We just didn’t give up,” Hamilton said. “I am so proud of every single person who has either come to our board or has left for whatever reason in the last five years that they all had a big piece of making this happen.”
The board officially held its first clinic at the end of October in a temporary space at The Place of Forsyth where volunteer physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners and pharmacists were ready to serve patients at no cost.
“I was pretty emotional that day, driving to our first clinic,” Hamilton said. “I was praying that whole car ride over and just thanking God for everything He has blessed our clinic with and for every single person who has served on our board or contributed in some way. That didn’t just happen. It happened with a whole lot of work, a whole lot of heart and a whole lot of commitment.”
How it works
Hamilton hopes the clinic will help serve everyone in the community who lacks access to affordable health care while also feeling like they are simply going in to see their physician like anyone else.
When coming in, first-time patients will have to fill out paperwork to see if they qualify for the clinic. Eligibility experts are on site to help patients through that process.
To qualify, patients must be 18-65 years old, a Forsyth County resident, not have available health insurance and be at or below 200% of the poverty line. Hamilton said there are exceptions, however, for some over 65 who have limited Medicare options, and qualifying standards from the state can change every year.
“Even if you don’t think you would qualify for the clinic, but you have no health care or health insurance, come in,” Hamilton said. “People will be surprised how many will actually qualify for the clinic for that kind of care and not realize it.”
Once patients fill out that paperwork, Hamilton explained that eligibility lasts for a year before it has to be renewed.
Just like any other physician’s office, patients would then go with a nurse to have their weight, height, blood pressure and other measurements checked before a physician makes any health care recommendations. Patients also see an on-site pharmacist to go over their medication history and any needed medicines.
Hamilton said there will not be a pharmacy on site for patients, but volunteer pharmacists will work with them to find affordable or no cost options for their medication. The clinic has already partnered with Good Pill, a nonprofit that provides affordable recycled medication for those without insurance.
“Recycled medications aren’t medications that have come out of your medication closet that you just haven’t used,” Hamilton said. “They have a chain of command. They have not lost any integrity. It was a medication that either came from an overstock from a big pharma …. or it could be from a long-term care facility where they’re receiving medication in those daily pill cards and now those medications have changed. So they have this pill card with maybe two weeks of pills left, and those can be sent to Good Pill.”
For most medications, Hamilton said patients can receive enough to last them 90 days from Good Pill for the cost of the shipping fee — typically just $6.
The pharmacist will provide other resources to patients to ensure the clinic can not only help diagnose and solve patient issues but also provide treatment and care. Hamilton said volunteers also have information on community resources available even for those who are not eligible for the clinic.
“No one will ever leave the clinic without some way to still be served for their health care needs,” Hamilton said.
Right now, volunteers are only taking walk-in appointments with patients at scheduled clinics. Patients can find scheduled clinic days, usually on Saturdays, by visiting Forsyth Community Clinic’s website at www.forsythcommunityclinic.org.
Why affordable health care is important in Forsyth
Hamilton said the board and volunteers have worked so hard to create this clinic because there is such a huge need for affordable health care even in an affluent county like Forsyth.
“We are going to serve so many people who are in such great need,” Hamilton said. “And I think we all can really relate. When you don’t have health care, you can feel so hopeless. I see it at the hospital every day. We see that patient come in and they’re like, ‘I can’t go to the ER because I’m not going to be able to afford that.’ Or they get admitted and say, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to afford this. I need to go home.’”
Several members of the board, including Hamilton, have had their own experience with not being insured or facing a seemingly insurmountable medical bill.
The nonprofit’s first executive director, Evan Shoemake, said he was drawn to the job because a similar free clinic saved him during a period when he was uninsured as a freelance writer in New York and experiencing a medical emergency.
“It was a life changer for me,” Shoemake said. “The fear and anxiety that accompany not having health insurance is incredible, and I’ve experienced it. I just thought if we can do something for people, [we should]. I believe everyone should have access to health care in some capacity that does not put them on the street.”
Shoemake said nearly 30,000 citizens in Forsyth are currently uninsured, and he and the board are afraid that number will grow as the economy continues to decline.
He and the board hope to expand the clinic to ensure everyone gets the care they need in the coming years, but to do that, Shoemake said they will need help from the community.
How to help
Right now, Hamilton said the clinic’s biggest needs are for a permanent space where they can see patients and a list of volunteers they can rely on to hold clinics on Saturdays.
She and the board are currently looking for a building within Cumming city limits that can be or has previously been outfitted as a medical facility to give patients a central clinic that hopefully anyone can make it to.
As she and Shoemake plan for the clinic to expand, Hamilton said the nonprofit also needs both medical and non-medical volunteers. Anyone, no matter the skill set, can apply to volunteer on the clinic’s website.
“We have a wonderful group of people who bought in early on, and they did our first two clinics,” Shoemake said. “They are some amazing nurses that just jumped in and got started. So we’ve had some great medical people, but we’re going to need a long list.”
While the nonprofit continues to seek out volunteers and a new building, Shoemake is also asking the community to donate to help.
The clinic recently launched its first fundraiser, 1K are A-Okay 100 Founder’s Club, where community members or groups can donate $1,000 to become a founder of the clinic and help treat 10 patients.
With one patient costing just $100 to treat at the clinic, Shoemake hopes to raise enough to cover care for the clinic’s first 1,000 patients. To learn more about the fundraiser or how to give a regular donation, visit www.forsythcommunityclinic.org/give.
With enough donations and community partnerships, Hamilton said she hopes to eventually be able to treat the whole patient with mental health care, wellness classes, dentistry and more as the clinic expands.
“We’re just on the cusp,” Hamilton said. “2023 will be a big year.”