By Kim Walter
WINCHESTER -- Coming from different sides of the issue, members of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Save Our Services and representatives of James Madison University's Child Development Clinic met Wednesday to determine the next step in planning a local satellite clinic.
Much of the discussion revealed a mix of information handed down by the Virginia Department of Health to both groups. At the meeting, the JMU employees expressed interest in opening a satellite clinic in the area, even if only for a few days a week.
The group consists of concerned parents, health and education officials who are fighting to bring back evaluation services once offered at the child development clinic in Winchester.
Several months ago, the commonwealth debuted a plan to close a majority of local clinics throughout Virginia and consolidate their services in fewer facilities, which would hire private contractors.
Local parents have since expressed concern over the required travel time and expenses associated with the JMU clinic for families of children with behavioral issues or special needs.
Additionally, the JMU location already had a catchment area, and adding several new counties and cities has resulted in fewer children being seen from the Lord Fairfax Health District per month.
For the first time, the group was able to meet with Rhonda Zingraff, director of JMU's Institute for Innovation in Health and Human Services, and Kim Hartzler-Weakley, director of the Office on Children and Youth.
The women revealed that JMU's clinic took on more localities than Winchester, Clarke, Frederick, Loudoun, Shenandoah, Warren and Page counties. The state has asked that they double their case numbers from 150 a year to 300.
However, Cassie Phipps Purtlebaugh, vice chairperson for the Save Our Services, said the Winchester CDC was already averaging 150 to 160 evaluations a year.
"So the new cases you're supposed to work would only cover our catchment area," she said. "That doesn't even include the other long list of counties and cities you've had to take on."
The JMU clinic recently signed a contract with the state, taking final steps toward making the consolidation official. The site has only been open to the added localities since July 1, and the JMU reps said they've been focused on the many changes that came with it.
"This is a new way of doing things for us, too," Zingraff said. "We've had to fill some new positions, get funding approved and change locations."
Zingraff added that in July, seven children from the Winchester area were seen for evaluations -- half the number of cases the now closed clinic was working a month.
Zingraff said that may seem like the clinic is backed up, but the reality was that they only got seven calls from the area.
Sharon Hanks, member of the NSVSOS, said she would like to call and set up an evaluation for her son, but she can't afford to take a day off of work, which would be necessary to take him an hour and a half down the road.
"No one, and I mean no one, will take Medicaid in this area," she said. "Getting a satellite clinic around here is the last string of hope that I'm holding on to."
Northwestern Community Services in Front Royal has already offered a space to house such a clinic rent-free. Not having to pay for a space would save $48,000 a year.
Dr. Randall Midock, a licensed school psychologist previously employed by the Winchester CDC, expressed frustration over the local clinic being "left out of the loop" when it came to its closing.
"If we could have added one more staff member, we easily could've doubled our numbers right here," he said. "I'm having a hard time understanding why things were done the way they were."
Midock also said he worried about his ethical responsibility connected with patient files, which have yet to find a home.
"We were told that JMU refused them, and that they might end up in some large basement in Richmond," he said. "But that won't work. People need access to that information, and they need to know that someone is actually certified to review and explain it."
Zingraff said her clinic never refused any files, and added that on the contrary, they had attempted to make space for any incoming reports they might have to house. Purtlebaugh said when she raised the issue during discussion with a VDH official, it was received as if it had never been brought up before.
"It's almost like the right hand doesn't know what the left is doing," Zingraff said. "It doesn't help that all of us have talked with several key players, but never at the same time or about the same issue."
"I want you to know that I do see the benefits of a satellite clinic," she said. "At the end of the day, this is about helping the children."
By the end of the meeting, Hanks suggested that the group come up with a budget outlining just what it would take to open a clinic for anywhere from two to four days a week.
"I think we need to be prepared with options, and we've got to have a way to show them that this is possible," she said. "I don't know what I'm going to do otherwise."
The JMU representatives are scheduled to partake in a teleconference with several VDH officials on Friday morning. During the conversation they plan to pass along the top priority concerns raised by the group, and see if the state is open to the idea of opening a satellite clinic.
"It's just really hard to say at this point," Zingraff said. "It comes down to making enough of a persuasive case that this has to happen."
To stay up to date with Northern Shenandoah Valley Save Our Services meetings, go to their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/NSVSOS.
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org