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'Wherever the need is, we serve,' says chief of health center that treats Durham's poor

Posted October 7, 2020 6:12 p.m. EDT

— A packed parking lot is a daily sight at Lincoln Community Health Center in Durham, which for half a century has been trying to provide the city's neediest residents with the health care many others take for granted.

"We’re always busy, yes," said Dr. Howard Eisenson, Lincoln's chief medical officer. "There’s a great deal of demand for our services, and it’s good that we’re here."

Started when what is now Duke Regional Hospital opened to replace two segregated hospitals – whites-only Watts Hospital and Lincoln Hospital for Black residents – the health center on Fayetteville Street provides an option for people without transportation to obtain care in their neighborhood.

Lincoln sees about 35,000 patients a year, "probably in the neighborhood of 140,000 patient visits a year," Eisenson said.

The center provides a range of medical services for both children and adult patients, including oral health, mental health, lab tests and a pharmacy.

"I would say, of all the things I’ve done, this is probably the most rewarding because we’re really meeting a need in this community. People are really appreciative of the services," Eisenson said.

Lincoln Chief Executive Philip Harewood noted that 57 percent of the center's patients are uninsured, and 90 percent are minorities.

"Wherever the need is, we serve. We are a safety net provider," Harewood said. "We serve those that are most vulnerable in the community, and if we were not here, they probably would go without very needed services. It’s always been that way. We’ve always had a health care system where certain sections of the community are uninsured."

The center, which has satellite offices across Durham, is funded by a mix of federal grants, support from the Duke University Health System, insurance from those patients who have coverage and some payments from patients themselves.

Eisenson said patients are charged on a sliding scale based on income and family size, with the poorest paying $20 for a visit. Homeless patients are seen free of charge, he said, and patients who have trouble scraping up money to pay their bills can set up a payment plan.

"What makes Lincoln really different from the average clinic is the fact that we are governed by our community," Harewood said, noting that Lincoln patients make up more than half of the board of directors.

Serving people who historically haven’t had access to health care poses many challenges, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Operating Officer Claretta Foye said.

Lincoln has expanded its services to provide virus testing and follow-ups with everyone who's tested to make sure they’re still getting the help they need, Foye said.

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