By La Prensa Staff 

Lorain County Health and Dentistry is marking its 20th anniversary this year, an operation that now boasts seven locations after starting as a single clinic.

The health center for low-income and underserved residents started as a nonprofit spin-off from a community health outpatient clinic housed within a Lorain County hospital.

Stephanie Wiersma is the only president and CEO the organization has ever known, also serving as its “founder and first employee,” as she puts it.

“It’s been extremely exciting and gratifying to me that this organization has evolved over the years and it  has been a 20 year labor of love in every sense of the word,” she said. “The work is hard. That’s the labor part. But I love what I do. Couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Being able to improve the health of the community, particularly for the most vulnerable populations, has really been important to me.”

Ms. Wiersma is a registered nurse and worked at a Lorain medical center before two hospitals merged.  Her clinical specialty was psychiatric mental health and served as department director. She saw a job posting for the independent clinic and decided to “go out on a limb.”

The biggest challenge facing Lorain County Health and Dentistry over its first two decades came early in its existence: finding the finances to meet the growing healthcare needs of its uninsured or underinsured population.

“We got some federal support in 2009 to help us offset some of the operating costs and caring for low-income patients who couldn’t afford to pay and that made a difference,” said Ms. Wiersma, who noted Ohio’s Medicaid expansion in 2014 also helped the health system’s bottom line.

That federal support now makes up about 30 percent of its annual budget to offset the cost of treating low-income and underserved populations. The health center is now the largest safety net provider of primary care in Lorain County. Its target population is those under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, uninsured patients and recipients of Medicare and Medicaid.

She cited the health system’s biggest achievement over the past 20 years is the expansion of clinic sites and services to be able to serve more people. Lorain County Health and Dentistry has now provided about 800,000 medical and dental visits since its inception.

In 2021, the nonprofit clinics served 17,585 unduplicated patients, which was a 14 percent increase over a record year in 2020. Those patients represent more than 60,000 medical and dental visits, just in one year. Both record years occurred during COVID, when it was a struggle to stay open for many health systems, let alone serve that many patients.

“I really think that offering services that are conveniently located in neighborhoods where the need is great, providing the best clinical care, and the best customer service brings people in, treat people great, and they want to come back,” she said. “That’s our job—to remove barriers.”

Those barriers to health care often include fear, cost, not feeling heard, a lack of transportation, and other factors.

About one-third of the clinic system’s patients are Latino, year in and year out, so the nonprofit health system puts a big emphasis on cultural competence. About 20 percent of the clinic staff speak Spanish, a figure Ms. Wiersma wishes was higher. But Lorain County Health and Dentistry has to compete for good employees with two hospitals and the Cleveland Clinic.

Ms. Wiersma pointed out that Lorain County Health and Dentistry’s Latino patients fare better than the overall patient population when it comes to preventive health services. In particular, she pointed to cancer screenings and controlled hypertension.

COVID-19 presented a challenge to the outpatient clinics, but Ms. Wiersma points out Lorain County Health and Dentistry never closed, instead pivoting to telehealth and other services for patients who had to stay home or wanted to stay home.

The pandemic’s aftermath has led to some evolving needs among their patients, including food insecurity and an increasing demand for mental health services.

“We have a growing behavioral health service here,” she said. “It’s integrated into primary care, so you have to be a medical patient of ours to access it. We want to give the patients that we serve the most comprehensive treatment that they need, based on our evaluation and what they tell us.”

Lorain County Health and Dentistry purchased a vacant building in 2020 and quickly renovated it when the pandemic hit. That allowed the nonprofit health system to offer drive-thru COVID testing and other vital pandemic-related health services.

Lorain County Health and Dentistry now operates seven clinics– four in Lorain, two in Elyria, and one in Oberlin. In 2013, the nonprofit health system expanded its range of services to include optometry. Lions Clubs in ten northern Ohio counties raised over $250,000 to buy the needed optometric equipment to help the clinics prevent blindness and improve sight among its patients.