By DUSTIN RACIOPPI
Joseph Aochoa wasn’t sure what to make of the trailer on Shrewsbury Avenue in Red Bank that he pulled up to 10 years ago looking for a medical check-up. It didn’t matter. The care he was about to get was free.
As he is today, Aochoa was then struggling to keep employment long enough to qualify for health benefits, and he needed treatment for diverticulitis. The volunteer doctors inside the trailer could do it for him gratis.
“I thought it was just a bunch of people trying to be nice to others,” Aochoa said. “So I try to the same thing when I’m out, so I can help people.”
A decade later, Aochoa, a Keansburg resident who still regularly visits the Parker Family Medical Center, finds that his first impression was spot-on.
“They really are nice people. They’ll do whatever they can,” Aochoa said. “I’m very grateful for that.”
There are people like Aochoa all over Monmouth County the area Parker serves and that’s why the clinic, which eventually left the trailer and took up residence in its own structure at 211 Shrewsbury, has been a success and model for healthcare in the county, says founder and president of the clinic’s board of directors, Dr. Eugene Cheslock.
But with that success comes challenges for Parker, particularly funding and space.
The caseload outgrew the trailer years ago. Now the one-story building is getting tight, Cheslock says, due to consistent annual growth and an anticipated spike in visitors in the next few years, when national healthcare reform kicks in.
Between now and then, Cheslock says higher premiums and general economic conditions will squeeze consumers out of the insurance market and into places like Parker, of which there aren’t many.
“We may experience a doubling in our numbers until the healthcare act is implemented,” Cheslock said. “Space is becoming a problem. We could use a bigger place now. We never envisioned the need for more physical space, but we’re there.”
The clinic, which officially turns 10 on July 29, has seen a steady rise in visitors since its humble beginnings. Cheslock says the first year it operated, he and the one or two other doctors who volunteered saw somewhere between 500 and 1,000 patients. This year, he anticipates upwards of 12,000. In the last decade, the predominately-volunteer staff, which now boasts about 80 physicians and some 200 nurses and nurse assistants, has seen about 80,000 patients, Cheslock said.
As patient numbers have swelled, so has the clinic’s budget, to about $1 million. Funding has always been a problem, Cheslock says, but the economy and the clinic’s low profile have put a more worrisome damper on funding goals this year.
“This year we’re projecting a shortfall,” Cheslock said.
Normally, the clinic covers its costs with a grant or two, biannual fundraising events and private donations; pop star Jon Bon Jovi has been one of the clinic’s more prominent benefactors. To avoid coming up short, Cheslock says this year the clinic will hold an additional fundraiser. A big one, he says, although he won’t talk about the details of it or say if any big names are expected to participate.
It’s a move the board didn’t want to make, but is necessary, he said.
“We have not been in your face,” he said about fundraising.
Budget woes certainly affect the inner workings of Parker, but clinic’s professionals try to mitigate the impact, says Carmen Phanuef, a nurse practitioner who runs the clinic’s growing diabetes program. Phaneuf, one of the few paid staffers, says the doctors just need to pay closer attention to treatments patients get without compromising their care.
Ans an example, she said the clinic picks up the tab on prescriptions for people who can’t afford them. So when that happens, the clinic is more careful about the ones they order, and where possible goes for generics rather than name brands.
Prescriptions can cost between $5,000 and $7,000 a month, Phaneuf says.
“It just makes us focus, like, are there generics we can use instead of brand names?” she said. “You can’t just walk in and order anything you want.”
More than the clinic’s own struggles to balance the ledger, officials worry about the patients coming in. These are often people who are choosing between paying rent or ensuring their health.
“When you’re getting a CAT scan or an MRI, that’s like $2,000,” Phaneuf said. “For somebody living paycheck to paycheck, that hurts.”
In its time in Red Bank, Cheslock says the Parker clinic has served as the example of how to run a health facility for low-income families. He calls Parker “the star of the car.”
One day, though, maybe by the time the next 10-year anniversary comes around, he’d like to see the star flame out, a signal of success.
The goal, he said, is “going out of business if healthcare (reform) truly does work. That’d be a great thing, if Americans were truly insured. That’d be wonderful.”