Category Archive News

‘Filling in the healthcare gaps’: The Free Clinics celebrates 20 years

By Rebecca Walter, Hendersonville Times-News

For the last two decades, The Free Clinics has filled in the healthcare gaps for the most vulnerable people in Henderson and Polk counties.  

TFC has evolved from a basic walk-in medical clinic to a multi-faceted organization providing accessible, quality healthcare for uninsured, low-income clients.  

“We wrap our arms around that population and see that not only does their health improve, but the impact on the health system is significant,” said TFC Executive Director Judith Long.  

The organization has grown to over 25 program offerings in six areas: acute medical care, behavioral health care, chronic and specialty care, community health services, innovative primary care and pharmaceutical support. 

When Long reflects on the impact of The Free Clinics, her mind goes to the individual lives touched by the organization and the myriad of stories she’s seen in her 17 years with TFC.  

“I can call to mind faces and names of lives that have been changed,” she said. “I believe we’ve been part of a systemic impact in the community, both Henderson and Polk counties, (which includes) not just keeping people alive, but healthy.”  

The Free Clinics serves as a medical home to patients who would otherwise depend on local hospitals and emergency departments. This impacts more than just the individual clients by saving taxpayers’ dollars, thanks to the vital services TFC provides. It also allows emergency departments to be better equipped and available to treat medical emergencies in the community.  

The Free Clinics estimates that the total value of care provided to the community is over $96.8 million.  

Over the last 20 years, The Free Clinics has:  

  • Served over 32,000 unique patients through nearly 300,000 patient encounters 
  • Provided over 197,200 prescriptions valued at more than $43.1 million to local residents 
  • Conducted approximately 6,750 diagnostic tests on-site, in addition to tens-of-thousands of tests performed by hospital partners  
  • Arranged around 3,200 referrals to specialty care and over 980 surgeries  

“It was jaw dropping when we did the math,” Long said. 

A brief history of The Free Clinics  

In the late 1990s, Dr. Russell Sacco and Dr. Irwin Perlmutter began discussing the need for a free clinic in the community to care for those without access to healthcare.  

For years, Sacco and Perlmutter networked with their peers and gathered support, which soon led to Dr. Colin Thomas coming on board. Thomas had just finished co-chairing a campaign to expand Pardee’s emergency department. He saw firsthand how many people were using the emergency room for primary care.  

“When I got involved, we knew there were a lot of people that went to the hospitals, not just Pardee, and used it for primary care, because they knew they had to be seen,” Thomas said. “That is very, very expensive care. I told people in the community that we can’t afford as a community to keep (expanding) the emergency room to keep up with people who are not using it for emergencies.”  

Dr. Steven Crane was also brought in at the ground level. At the time, he was helping establish the residency program at Pardee. Crane had experience working in different free clinics during his training. For TFC, he envisioned healthcare providers that were actively practicing medicine volunteering their services. He initially feared there wouldn’t be much interest in volunteering. Looking back 20 years later, Crane admits he was wrong.  

TFC now partners with over 200 volunteers and 181 community health care providers to ensure quality, accessible care. Crane always wanted to ensure that clients at The Free Clinics did not receive “back-of-the-bus” care.  

Thomas says the group was initially met with some resistance. Following Crane’s model got more people on board.  

On Dec. 13, 2001, The Free Clinics opened its doors and saw its first patients at a walk-in medical clinic. TFC saw seven patients that night and quickly grew through word of mouth. The Free Clinics will celebrate that milestone with a homecoming event later this month. 

Crane noted that most free clinics don’t survive more than two to three years. He credits The Free Clinics’ fluidity to its survival over the last two decades.  

“The mission is to fill the gaps,” he said. “We serve whatever needs to be served, and whomever needs to be served, because that changes over time, too.”  

For Thomas, meeting the needs of the community has also meant ensuring TFC does not duplicate services provided by other organizations.  

Thomas and Crane are the founding members still alive today, as Sacco and Perlmutter have passed away. More information on TFC timeline is available at  

Partnerships vital to TFC mission  

The Free Clinics has over 180 health and community partners that are vital to the organization. 

In addition to the care TFC provides, the organization also serves as the Access Network for the community, nurturing collaborative relationships with over 180 health and social service partners who provide diagnostic testing and specialty care services, such as surgeries, to those who could otherwise not afford them. 

“We couldn’t exist without our partners,” Long said.  

Long has worked in communities across the U.S., including San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and New York, and says Henderson County is the standout. 

“I’ve never worked anywhere that’s more collaborative than Henderson County,” she said. “People sit down and problem solve as a team. It is a really rich, shared conversation.”  

Crane said Henderson County is unique in the way partners work together and collaborate.  

“It is amazing what can be done when you don’t care who gets the credit,” Thomas said.

Partnerships can also save taxpayer money. The Free Clinics currently hosts five different programs with the Henderson County Detention Center, and TFC pharmacy has provided more than $2 million in medications for inmates, which is money that didn’t have to come from tax dollars.  

The Free Clinics is not under the same mandates that providers like health centers or health departments must follow, which allows TFC to fill in the cracks.  

“We are the partner that has the freedom to address the needs that are unmet,” Long explained. “That nimbleness is our greatest strength.”  

Partnerships also exist between clients at TFC. Long, Thomas and Crane are filled with stories of clients helping one another. At The Free Clinics, it is not only about patient needs, but seeing patients give back. 

“I can tell story after story of people walking out of here with tears streaming down their faces saying that they didn’t think anyone cared,” Crane said. “Once they know you care, it awakens their compassion and empathy. They help each other.”  

Celebration of 20 years of service  

The Free Clinics is hosting a 20th anniversary home celebration from 12:30 – 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 28. 

Tickets for the event at Camp Tekoa in Hendersonville are $20 per person and will include a boxed lunch and other refreshments. This will be a family-friendly lakeside bash on Sunday afternoon and will include live music; swimming, boating and other water activities; and games for children of all ages.  

To purchase a ticket, call 828-697-8422 x 131 or register online at

Looking toward the future  

Long often wishes for a crystal ball that could tell her what the future will hold. The last several years have given insight into some of the focus areas and challenges ahead.  

She believes substance misuse will continue to be an issue, as it has become one of the areas TFC has evolved to address in recent years. Long hopes to build a deeper understanding of how a person’s early life impacts their brain development, choices, and ongoing health. That deeper understanding will hopefully evolve how society looks at marginalized groups, Long said, and improve how people engage with each other.  

Advances in medicine and medical treatments are inevitable. Some current issues will certainly create challenges, though their extent is still unknown. Thomas believes that as we slowly move out of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues will become more and more apparent.  

“I believe we are just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he said.  

With Medicaid expansion on the horizon, TFC is expecting to see some impact. Long said she cannot speculate too much, and said that is a board of directors conversation.  

“There is no question that we will be impacted,” she said. “I think we will figure out how to partner with the rest of the healthcare (community) like we’ve always done and continue to provide wraparound care for the most vulnerable patients, so still fundamentally do what we do.” 

There’s a belief that the main barrier to healthcare is being uninsured, and Medicaid expansion will fix that problem. That is not the case, according to Crane.  

“That only takes away one of the multiple barriers. For the patients that we see, the most vulnerable, it isn’t their (uninsured status) that makes them the most vulnerable, it is their life circumstances,” Crane said.  

For Crane, his main hope for the years to come is that The Free Clinics continues to leave a legacy of compassion. 

“The lasting legacy I would love to leave this community is how to inject compassionate care into healthcare,” he said. “…All of us have stories.”  

Originally published on

‘We want to reduce the barriers to service:’ Connections center planned for Hendersonville

The Hendersonville Connections Center is an exciting new project that will bring representatives from The Free Clinics and other organizations under one roof to ease access to critical services for those in our community who have multi-dimensional needs, such as medical and behavioral health care, job training, laundry, showers, and more. TFC is thrilled to be part of this effort, and we are grateful for Dogwood Health Trust’s investment and Hendersonville City Council’s support of this vital service.

Read more about the project at WLOS


The Free Clinics to expand primary care services in Polk County thanks to grant

The Free Clinics, a free health care program serving uninsured and under-insured residents of Henderson and Polk counties, is one of 15 clinics in the U.S. to receive a 2021 grant from Family Medicine Cares USA, a signature program of the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation. The $10,000 grant will be used to help The Free Clinics expand its facility in Polk County and enhance primary care.

Read more on BlueRidgeNow


Henderson County inmates receive COVID-19 vaccine, sheriff’s office says

The Free Clinics, working with the Henderson County Department of Public Health & Henderson County Sheriff’s Office, was able to vaccinate 55 inmates on Monday, 4/19/2021. For those inmates released prior to their second dose, TFC will be helping to coordinate and ensure they get the right information for where and when to complete the vaccine protocol.

Read the story on FoxCarolina


Free flu shots for the uninsured Dec. 8 at The Free Clinics

The Free Clinics will offer free flu shots to community members without health insurance from 4-7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 8 at its offices at 841 Case St. in Hendersonville.

The walk-in clinic is scheduled to take place during National Influenza Vaccination Week (Dec. 6-12), an awareness week sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to highlight the importance of yearly flu vaccination.

“As we head into the upcoming months facing the rising cases of COVID, we are still months away from a vaccine for COVID being widely available,” RN Jennifer Tarleton, TFC Clinical Services director, said in a news release.

“Developing both COVID and flu could be an even deadlier risk for many people. The nursing staff is urging the community to protect themselves and get their flu shots.”

The CDC says its more important than ever to get vaccinated for flu, especially those with certain chronic conditions like asthma, heart disease, and diabetes. Getting vaccinated can also reduce the burden of flu illnesses on hospitals so they can focus on patients with COVID-19.

While flu shots have been encouraged nationwide since early fall, it is not too late to get a shot that will be effective for this flu season.

For more information about the Flu Shot Clinic, contact Clinical Services Director Jennifer Tarleton at 828-697-8422 or


Free Clinics adapts with telemedicine, curbside pharmacy

By Andrew Dundas for the Hendersonville Lightning

This year The Free Clinics (TFC) altered the services it provides patients to accommodate the changing needs of the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Executive Director Judy Long talked about the challenges arriving from the pandemic when the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits invited her to speak at a virtual news conference in September.

“We have been immediately and directly impacted by COVID,” Long said. In an average year, TFC has around 200 volunteers. “We lost about 85 percent of them.” Many were elderly volunteers who have chosen to stay home since they are at greater risk from the virus.

TFC has not had to furlough or lay off employees thanks to a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, Long said, but they are still in need of support which recognizes the long-term nature of the pandemic. Money from the state “just covers the bare necessities of what we have to do, and it has an expiration date.” TFC could use more staff, Long said, “but, I can’t do that when I know any money I’ve got expires Dec. 31 because that just perpetuates the problem of higher and higher lay-offs.”

Amid a shortage of volunteer help and funding, TFC’s volume of patients has increased by 20 percent, a rise Long attributed to pandemic-related loss of employment and insurance for people in the area.

The issue of behavioral health has surged, too, Long said “It’s triple the number of folks in substance abuse treatment now than we had at the beginning of the year.

“I think you can look at the national data and see the increase in substance use, the increase in overdoses, the increase in suicide, the increase in anxiety and behavioral health challenges that people are living with as we live through this pandemic,” she added.

In response to the unique issues presented by COVID-19, TFC has adjusted aspects of their services to better accommodate patients during a pandemic. The organization has pivoted into treating patients virtually and instituted curbside pickup at their pharmacy.

“The opportunity to have telehealth is completely dependent on wi-fi,” Long said. To help ensure that patients would be able to access virtual care, TFC led a campaign to bring wi-fi accessibility to businesses, churches and city centers.

Though most care has moved toward telehealth, TFC has maintained their Tuesday night walk-in urgent care. “We did keep some live moments so that folks could know that they had a place to go.”

TFC’s priority going forward, Long said, is “staying open and making sure that we are available and accessible to people as much as possible.”

She said people can support The Free Clinics in three different ways. First, by contributing to general awareness that there is a healthcare option for people who are unemployed and uninsured. Second, for those who wish to volunteer, TFC has clinical and administrative positions. Finally, she said donations are welcome to TFC and their nonprofit partners which make up the community’s safety net.


The Free Clinics hosts ribbon-cutting for Columbus office, Oct. 29

The Free Clinics (TFC) will be hosting a ribbon cutting event at its new dedicated office in Polk County on Thursday, October 29, at 4:30pm. Located in Suite I at 60 Walker Street in Columbus, the organization officially moved into the space earlier this year on April 1st, but due to the pandemic was not able to welcome patients immediately. With restrictions gradually easing, it has since been able to open its doors.

The Free Clinics has had a presence in Polk County since 2013, and has been accepting patients from Polk for even longer, but this is its first dedicated, non-shared space. While there are no providers at the site, eligible clients—Polk residents who have no insurance and with incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty level—are able to receive case management, specialty referrals, and prescription assistance from the local office. They are also eligible for all services available at the Henderson location.

“The Free Clinics is incredibly excited to welcome the community to our new Columbus office. We believe that this new TFC office will enable greater visibility of our services and ensure greater access to critical care for our Polk County neighbors in need,“ says TFC executive director Judith Long. “We invite you to visit us—to learn more about our services, refer your neighbors, volunteer to help us care for our neighbors in need.”

Polk Case Manager Jada Scruggs adds, “I am so excited about our new adventure in Polk County and all the people we can help. We can’t wait for you to meet us!”

The ribbon cutting gathering will take place outdoors in the parking lot, rain or shine. Individuals will be able to tour the office in small groups to comply with social distancing guidelines.

The new office is also in need of volunteers to help with greeting clients and answering the phone a few days each week. The office is open Monday through Friday from 8am to 4pm.

For more information about The Free Clinics’s services in Polk County, call the Polk office at 828-722-1200. If you are interested in becoming a volunteer, contact Sarah Friedell, Community Relations Coordinator at


The Free Clinics expands footprint in Polk County, seeks volunteers

By Rebecca Walter
Times-News Staff Writer

The Free Clinics has offered services to Polk County residents for over a decade, and recently opened an office in Columbus. The location officially opened April 1 of this year, but was not available for in-person clients immediately due to previous coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions…

Read more at BlueRidgeNow


NC Nonprofits Press Conference

The Free Clinics was recently invited to take part in a virtual press conference by the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits to share our unique challenges during the pandemic (such as patients’ internet access for telehealth services; seeing increasing numbers of patients; volunteer loss; and the rise in behavioral health concerns for our community), and urge federal leaders to take action to ensure nonprofits like TFC can continue helping the members of our community.

You can view the press conference on YouTube here, with remarks from TFC’s executive director Judy Long starting at 33:45.


LGFCU Excellence in Innovation Award 2020

Last month, The Free Clinics and Henderson County were honored with the Local Government Federal Credit Union (LGFCU) Excellence in Innovation award from the NCACC for our Behavioral Health Navigation for Inmates program.

In this brief video, Patient Health Advocate/Navigator Tina LaFoy describes the impact this important new program has on the health and well-being of the individuals in detention and their families.

This infographic charts the development of this award-winning program in the Henderson County Detention Center, and the remarkable results we have achieved so far.