As a patient navigator, Shaé Neal sees between 100-150 people with HIV each week.
Her job is to help them get the care they need. Although she’s able to find the right resources, partly because of her own knowledge, she wants to see Tarrant County do more to make health-care services known.
Neal, 65, works for the Tarrant County Public Health Preventative Medicine Clinic. Although there is access to health care for low-income people in Fort Worth, she said, the lack of awareness prevents programs from being fully used.
The county provides several services for low-income people, starting with JPS Health Network and North Texas Area Community Health Center. The county’s Public Health Department helps provide preventative care, such as HIV care and prevention, STD testing and treatment, and TB testing and treatment. A Women, Infant and Children program also provides nutrition education and food benefits to children and pregnant women.
“There are tons and tons of programs that are available,” Neal said. “But when the resource itself is not screaming in their face, then that becomes inaccessible. And that’s where the problem lies.”
A lot of her clients do not know how to use a computer well or have internet access, she said. That can present a barrier for those she helps.
Alejandra Ochoa, 39, migrated to the U.S. from Aguascalientes, Mexico, in 2013 with her two sons Lucas Ochoa, 10, and Manuel Ochoa, 8.
Her mother-in-law, who attended Travis Avenue Baptist Church, recommended Mercy Clinic to Ochoa, telling her they could help her treat her diabetes. She has been a regular patient at the clinic for seven years.
“That clinic has been a blessing for me because of my diabetes. They pay a lot of attention to their patients. It’s all free,” Ochoa said in Spanish. “I have recommended this clinic to people who I know live in this ZIP code.”
She receives check-ups every three months for her diabetes, she said. Her two underage sons cannot be attended at Mercy Clinic, but they receive their vaccinations at health fairs held at the church.
Although Ochoa was able to find help through the church, some still have trouble finding care. Neal said to combat this, there should be “massive, ongoing, continuously, never-ending education.” She said this should range from billboards to TV to flyers.
When patients aren’t educated on services available, they don’t get care, Neal said. An example of this is when the Affordable Care Act was rolled out and people signed up for the cheapest plans but didn’t get good services.
Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fikes said the county has plenty of free clinics, but they are not evenly distributed. He represents Precinct 3 in northern Tarrant County, and said his constituents have two clinics available when they should have five or six.
Some schools have clinics that help students and their siblings, Fikes said. They can help students when they get sick with something like a cold or the flu, nurse practitioners can send them home and prescribe medicine.
He said it cuts down the time the child misses school because they get a proper diagnosis and medicine early on.
But Fikes still wants more full-service clinics in his precinct as Tarrant County grows north, he said.
Also, Neal said, people need to be aware of care available for chronic conditions other than cancer.
“We’re flooded with cancer. Why can’t that be the same thing for everything?” she said. “Do the same thing with health care, do the exact same things in the neighborhoods where it’s needed. If I don’t know about JPS main office, I’m not going to know about the little clinic that’s right there in my community. I don’t even know about JPS. How will I know to go look down there?”
Free clinics in Fort Worth
According to freeclinics.com and Mercy Clinic:
Northside Community Health Center, 2332 Beverly Hills Drive.
Southeast Community Health Center, 2909 Mitchell Blvd.
Cornerstone Charitable Clinic, 3500 Noble Ave.
Mercy Clinic, 775 W Bowie St.
JPS Health Network, 1350 S Main St.
UNTHSC Pediatric Mobile Clinic, (817) 929-5437
Fort Worth Pregnancy Center, 3221 Cleburne Rd.
This list may not be complete. If you know of free clinics not on this list, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Along with education, Neal said, more pop-up clinics in underserved neighborhoods help with access to health care for low-income people.
One clinic working to serve a specific neighborhood is Mercy Clinic at 775 W. Bowie St. in south Fort Worth in the Hemphill neighborhood. The clinic provides health care, dental care and is a pharmacy.
The clinic is “guided by our love for people, love for God and wanting to show the compassion of Christ,” Executive Director Peggy Leitch said. The staff offer a range of primary care, including managing chronic illness like diabetes and hypertension, providing physicals and women’s wellness exams, and treating viruses and urinary tract infections.
The center hase about 1,800 clients they see at a variety of times depending on their needs, Leitch said. Some clients they see every three months and some once a year, but she said most patients visit more than once annually.
Volunteer nurses, doctors, pharmacists and registration staff run the clinic to help provide free care for patients. Most volunteers also speak Spanish because about 98% of clients do, she said.
Initially, Mercy Clinic served only people in the 76110 ZIP code, but Leitch said the staff expanded service to the 76104 ZIP code as well. The clinic does not like to turn anyone away, and tries to direct people to other services when they need to.
“Really, for us, you say you’re uninsured, and you don’t have resources to pay for your medical care on your own, we just accept that,” she said. “We want them to live in the 76110. Initially, it was this ZIP code and then we’ve expanded to 76104. But it’s really an honor system in some senses. I mean, if you come to us, you must need help.”
The clinic gets funding to provide these services from individual donors, grants and places like the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Amon G. Carter Foundation and the North Texas Community Foundation.
“Somehow, the Lord provides,” Leitch said. “That’s all I can say is that, just when we think, ‘We need to get x how do we get this?’ You know, the Lord provides it.”
Mercy Clinic started serving the Hemphill neighborhood as an outreach program of the Travis Avenue Baptist Church.
When she worked as a registered nurse, Leitch said, she volunteered in community ministries at the church and saw a need in the area. She said she specifically saw a need for undocumented people.
“It became evident that the idea of finding a place just for a routine doctor appointment, that doesn’t involve going to the emergency room because you have an earache, was very hard,” she said. “So that’s why we started here. We just believe we have an opportunity to influence a whole generation of people trained to be health care professionals to give back to have the opportunity to give back.”
The public health department also does not turn anyone away, Public Health Director Vinny Taneja said. The department has to follow some requirements because of federal grants, such as the WIC program being geared toward women and children under 5. Another example is the vaccine program being specific to immunizations children need.
“But the bottom line is that nobody gets turned away,” he said. “We don’t go shake people down for dollars or anything like that.”
Undocumented people also are included in those who can get services from the department, Taneja said.
“There’s not a requirement to prove anywhere that you’re an illegal immigrant,” he said. “Whether you’re legal or not, no problem.”
That policy is not one County Commissioner Fikes supports, he said.
“I do not support, providing, and giving our taxpayers the opportunity, to provide all of (undocumented people’s) medical needs,” he said. “I fully support the federal government, which mandates what we must do in emergency situations, which includes the birth of children. What’s not allowed is what we call ongoing care. They can come and have our care, and purchase it and they get a bill, and they can pay the bill.”
Although he supports legal immigration, Fikes said, giving undocumented people access to free health care from the county costs taxpayers a lot of money.
The department does not report any undocumented people to immigration authorities, Taneja said. The staff accepts most forms of ID, including utility bills or housing vouchers, to show they are treating the right person and giving them age-appropriate care.
“Our one and only goal is to prevent diseases from occurring,” Taneja said. “And we typically don’t let any barriers stand in the way.”
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Community Engagement Journalist Cristian ArguetaSoto contributed to this report.