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'We can't do it by ourselves:' Georgia Highlands honors partners, legislators for help during COVID-19 pandemic
ghms luncheon 2022
Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan spoke at a luncheon hosted by Georgia Highlands Medical Services on Wednesday, Aug. 17.

After celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2019, Georgia Highlands Medical Services, along with the rest of the world, was thrown into disarray from the COVID-19 pandemic.

At a luncheon hosted by Georgia Highlands officials on Wednesday, Aug. 17, CEO Todd Shifflet said in the past two years, Georgia Highlands Medical Services has had almost 24,000 sick visits from COVID-19 patients with more than 2,000 being treated under tents in parking lots.

But between the visits and 10,000 COVID-19 vaccines GHMS has administered, Shifflet said the practice has continued to grow and help more people in need.

In 1979, Sisters Kathryn Cliatt and June Racicot, along with “tireless community leaders,” founded the George E. Wilson Memorial Health Services Inc.

The mission was simple: “to provide services to those in our community who have no other place to turn for care.”

Since opening its doors over 40 years ago and going through a name change, GHMS has grown to include six medical centers serving 21,000 patients in Bartow, Cherokee, Dawson and Forsyth counties and surrounding communities in north Georgia.

About 75% of patients are living below the poverty line with 50% uninsured, according to Shifflet.

U.S., state and local officials attended the luncheon on Wednesday to share Georgia Highlands Medical Services’s success and learn more about federally qualified health centers. 

‘Understanding the importance’

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux said one of the first bills she worked on “out of college” with Sen. Ron Wyden was “for community health centers.”

“It was getting community health centers covered by the Federal Tort Claims Act,” Bourdeaux said. 

Her passion for the issue came after her uncle was injured driving a truck. 

“He was clipped from behind by an uninsured driver, his truck flipped over and he was really badly injured,” she said.

His health insurance covered medical bills “for a little bit,” but because he worked for a small business, “they didn’t have a long-term plan,” and he lost his job.

Bourdeaux said he “had no doctor he could go to” and was reliant on community health centers.

“I am personally grateful to the community health centers,” she said.

She said in Forsyth County, Georgia Highlands has been able to provide valuable services to immigrant or undocumented populations, many of whom do “high-risk work” such as roofing, working in poultry plants, landscaping and other occupations where individuals are more likely to get injured.

“Understanding the importance of the CHCs is why I supported providing $6 billion in supplemental funding through the American Rescue Plan, [or ARPA],” Bourdeaux said.

She said GHMS received $5.2 million from ARPA, “designed to help with COVID-19 operations but also to help with the physical infrastructure and capacity to be able to expand that.”

Bourdeaux said in her next term she would work on immigration reform to address staffing shortages in the medical field.

“[Immigration reform] would help us bring people into this country who are doctors, who are nurses, who want to come here and bring some very important skills to our community,” she said. 

ghms luncheon 2022
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux.

‘What breaks my heart is poverty’

 

Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan began by saying that “it’s great to be home” in Forsyth County.

“It’s great to see so many friends and folks that have done such a great job in this community really making Forsyth County a model for not just other communities in Georgia, but for the rest of the country,” Duncan said.

Duncan said his first interaction with Georgia Highlands was “completely unexpected.”

He said he was a “freshly sworn-in state representative” and got call from a constituent that had been diagnosed with cancer by doctors at GHMS. Duncan said he was “impoverished [and] had no insurance.”

Duncan called Lynn Jackson, administrator of Northside Hospital Forsyth, who helped facilitate the surgery for him.

As a member of the Browns Bridge Church community, Duncan thought back to a question his pastor often asked, “What breaks your heart?”

“I realized, unfortunately, what breaks my heart is poverty,” Duncan said.

Duncan met with Shifflet who helped him better understand federally qualified health centers.

Duncan said through his church he began to develop a philosophy he calls the “Four Cs” – churches, charities, corporations and citizens.

“Harnessing the power of the Four Cs to be the effective force against in and around poverty,” Duncan said. “Instead of just trying to grow big government programs which are bloated and ineffective at most times, but really leaning into the community to be a part of the solution.”

Duncan said that while there was “so much good work to still be done inside this model,” he was glad to see that GHMS worked within the intersection of the Four Cs, working together with community members, churches and other nonprofits throughout north Georgia. 

Awarding those who made a difference

In closing, Shifflet took a moment to extend gratitude to GHMS’s partners and people who helped the organization through COVID-19.

“We can’t do it by ourselves,” Shifflet said. “There’s no way that Georgia Highlands is going to be able to grow … [and] tackle [issues] if we all don’t work together.”

Shifflet and his team presented awards to officials including Bourdeaux; James McCoy, president and CEO of the Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce; Ruth Goode, executive director of United Way of Forsyth County and Browns Bridge Church lead pastor Adam Johnson.

 

For more information on Georgia Highlands Medical Services, visit www.ghms-inc.org.