In praise of health care without limits
Shortly after Roselle and I moved to the Berkshires, we met Dr. Thomas Whitfield. To say that we fell in love with the man who would become our children’s pediatrician and our own personal doctor would be an understatement. I have never met anyone like him and I suspect I never shall again. He knew his medicine and he was one of those rare human beings who was truly concerned about humankind.
The man was totally committed to giving a break to those with the least. He really gave a damn. Not only did he run a private practice, but he started something called the Children’s Health Program. Stories abound about how he would put his staff in cars and roam the Berkshires looking for kids who didn’t have any health care. What a doctor, what a man.
When Thomas Whitfield retired, his place was taken by the remarkable Linda Small who worked tirelessly to carry on what Tom had started. She was terrific and energetic and she kept things going. Linda has now retired and the Children’s Health Program has morphed into something even bigger.
The current CEO is Bryan Ayars, and what was formerly the Children’s Health Program is now Community Health Programs. It’s a free-standing, not-for-profit health center that serves those in Berkshire County who need medical attention. About 12 percent of the people served by the CHP in the Southern Berkshires and now in Pittsfield have no medical insurance. Others have commercial or government health insurance, such as Medicare or MassHealth. Some of these people include undocumented immigrants who would have no help other than the CHP and organizations like Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) in Great Barrington. According to Ayars, “We take ‘em all! We’re officially blind to this technicality. If they want care, we provide it.”
This organization is really impressive. There are a total of 17 doctors, 10 of whom are full time. Dental care is also available, although Director Ayars says that the recruitment of qualified dentists is a huge problem. Much of the orientation of the CHP is preventive in nature. The clinic’s hours are weekdays from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but docs are on call 24 hours a day.
When asked about the relationship with the existing medical establishment, Ayars says that it’s pretty good. Obviously, the CHP is willing to service everyone, even those with the least resources. Sometimes they can do what the hospitals and emergency rooms can’t do, like providing continuity of care. The hospitals and the CHP refer patients to one another, depending on the various needs.
Ayars says that while the pool of money for health centers like the CHP has been decreasing, his operation has been avoiding the cuts that have decimated so many other institutions. In fact, he says, the country’s free-standing community health centers have been basically non-partisan in nature. Both presidents Bush protected the program, as have the recent Democratic presidents. Most of the revenues to run the health center come from the patient fees.
It is not surprising that 36 percent of the incredible 10,000 patients who are served reside in Pittsfield and about 20 percent live in Great Barrington. In 2010, there were more than 50,000 “patient encounters,” which represents an unbelievable increase of 360 percent since 2007. As the word gets out about the Community Health Programs — and the floodgates are opening — some 200 new patients are being added each month.
For all they do, the agency’s $9 million annual budget is impressively low, but that’s still a lot of money for a group that is doing such vital work. If anyone wants to donate money to a really good cause, this is a great opportunity to do so. When you consider how much they are accomplishing, this is one agency that deserves all the financial and moral support we can give.
Tom Whitfield must be looking down on all of this with a great deal of pride. He should be.
Originally published in the Berkshire Eagle, 6/18/11