For more than 20 years, brain specialists, eye specialists, skin specialists and other specialty care doctors have been treating uninsured patients for free in a cramped basement space in Middleton.
Now, what used to be called the Benevolent Specialists Project Free Clinic has a new name and a new location. Renamed Specialty Care Free Clinic, it moved this year to Emil Street, off Fish Hatchery Road near the Beltline on Madison’s South Side.
“We’re better off to be central,” said Dr. Tim Docter, medical director of the clinic, which now has 2,700 square feet of above-ground space with windows, compared to 1,800 square feet underground before.
As for the name change, the previous moniker, abbreviated as BSP, was confusing to many people. “Nobody knew what Benevolent Specialists Project meant,” Docter said. “It didn’t say what we do.”
The mission remains the same: to help uninsured people get free medical care from specialists, which can be hard to find.
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Most of the dozen or so free clinics in south-central Wisconsin focus on primary care. Specialty Care Free Clinic is believed to be the only free clinic in the state that provides only specialty care. It offers 18 different types of medicine, including neurology, ophthalmology, dermatology, cardiology and gynecology. Primary care free clinics and other clinics for the underserved refer patients to it.
The care is provided by more than 90 volunteers, including doctors, nurses, physical therapists, psychologists and a diabetic counselor. More than half are retired, but working providers also volunteer.
About three-fourths of patients are Spanish-speaking, and interpreters are available. With many immigrants unable to get insurance or afford care, even with the Affordable Care Act, Docter said he sees the need for the clinic continuing.
“With the right laws in place, we could be completely wiped out — what a good thing that would be,” he said. But, “I don’t see the political will, for a long, long time, to ensure everybody who comes into the country (has insurance).”
Care without cost
On a recent afternoon, interpreter Alejandra Sochan helped patient Aquilina Cruz navigate her first visit to the clinic. Cruz, 39, of Lake Geneva, has headaches and lingering neck and shoulder pain from a car accident 11 years ago.
Dr. Beth Lake, a UW Health neurologist who volunteers at the clinic, examined Cruz’s head, face and eyes and talked to her about sleep, diet and physical activity. When Cruz acknowledged she doesn’t exercise much, Lake delivered a gentle cue.
“Hopefully as the weather gets nicer, maybe you can get out and walk some,” Lake said.
Cruz, who said her regular doctor told her about the specialty clinic, said she’s grateful for it.
“It’s a good option for people without insurance,” she said through Sochan. “It’s a safe place.”
Michell Labarri, 23, of Fort Atkinson, has been coming to the clinic since she was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2017. She visited last week after having two recent seizures, including one while she was driving. It led to a crash that totaled her car and injured the left side of her body.
Lake has helped her identify activities, such as drinking, that can trigger her seizures, Lambarri said. “She helps me out with what I can do to manage my stress,” she said.
“Had I not had this clinic, we would have been in thousands of dollars of debt,” said Lambarri, whose mother accompanied her.
Started in 2001 by Dr. Walter Sundstrom and the late Drs. Ernie Pellegrino and Paul Simenstad, the clinic was supported by the Dean Foundation until after SSM Health acquired Dean Clinic in 2013. In 2017, organizers began seeking other support, with foundations, corporations and individuals now helping meet its budget, forecast at $280,000 this year.
SSM Health continues to provide free lab tests and X-rays, and UW Health provides some other services, Docter said.
When COVID-19 initially hit, the clinic struggled to find enough volunteers, with older providers and younger ones with children weary of coming in, Docter said. Vaccinations helped change that. In fact, the clinic eventually had enough volunteers to vaccinate more than 1,100 other people at more than a dozen sites around the county last year.
With the new location opening in January and an open house set for April 26, Docter said patient activity is picking up again.
“We’re up to full speed,” he said.