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Vecinos expanding healthcare services for low-income families in Macon County

By Kristin Fox

Franklin will soon be home to the Community Health Hub, a one-stop facility for bilingual primary and behavioral health care. The new non-profit organization is an expansion of Vecinos, the non-profit organization which has been serving the needs of migrant farm workers in Western North Carolina since 2004. 

Through a $5.6 million venture, the non-profit hopes to better serve the region’s low-income, uninsured residents. Recently, the organization purchased the former Smoky Mountain Systems building on Highway 441 for the new clinic.

Vecinos received a temporary bridge loan from Dogwood Health Trust to finance the cost of the building purchase. The organization has launched a $5.6 million capital campaign to repay the loan and for funds to renovate the facility.

The new facility will allow Vecinos to expand their current charitable care which they currently provide through two mobile clinics and a clinic located at Western Carolina University. Although medical care has been focused on migrant farm workers, the group has expanded their services to provide care to low-income uninsured, predominantly Spanish-speaking clients. To continue to expand their program and provide services to more clients Vecinos needed more space.

Currently, the clinic serves over 750 patients at two eight-hour clinics at WCU and their two mobile units. Based on data from the census bureau there is a much greater need for medical services for the low-income noninsured population than Vecinos has been able to provide. 

Thirty-four percent of Vecinos patients reside in Macon County and receive treatment in mobile units. Most clients are farm workers who receive specialized care for pesticide poisoning as well as heat and sun-related illnesses.

Vecinos serves low-income clients and those who don’t have health insurance or reasonable access to health insurance. While the non-profit still maintains a special focus on farm workers, they have expanded to provide integrated health care and mental health to people who need it free of charge.

“All our services are free to our clients,” said Martinez. “We don’t charge for any of our services, and we also assist with copay for specialists. As you know there are not very many options for medical care, especially in these rural areas such as Jackson, Macon and Graham.

“We do all we need to do to get our patients the medical care that they need,” added Martinez. “We do anything we can for our clients to break down the barriers to health care.”

Services at Vecinos are provided through the work of volunteers and staffed medical providers. All staff are bilingual and work closely with clinics such as the Community Care Clinics of Highlands and Franklin and Blue Ridge Health Services offering medical services that provide cultural confidence.

Vecinos provides interpretation at specialists and transportation to their clinic or specialists. They also have a licensed pharmacy, and provide diagnostic lab services, medication assistance and farm worker outreach.

In 2020-2021, the organization expanded their community health outreach by administering over 4,000 vaccines and conducting 800 COVID education encounters. The experience led to the organization expanding its mission to create the Community Health Hub. Currently, utilizing their mobile clinics, the community health care teams have been working in predominantly Spanish-speaking neighborhoods to identify those who need medical help. 

“Based on data from the census bureau in the past 20 years we have seen a 400 percent increase in our Latin mix population in our in the six western counties,” said Martinez. “Our medical services are not following that trend, especially in these rural areas.” 

“We have folks coming to work on our local farms to produce the food we eat every day,” she added. “At least 4.6 households speak a language other than English and 3.1 percent are foreign-born which makes our Spanish culturally focused health care even more important.”

According to Martinez, the National Health Data Mapping System indicates a significant concentration of low-income uninsured Latin mix and English limited households in the Cullowhee, Glenville, Tuckasegee, and Franklin zip code areas.

The Community Health Hub will offer many different services for its clients. Blue Ridge Free Dental Clinic will add four dental rooms at the Franklin location in addition to continuing to provide dental care at its clinic in Cashiers. The 30th Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance from Waynesville, El Centro Comunitario of Macon County, a Hispanic community advocacy group, and Pisgah Legal Services of Asheville, which provides legal services to low-income people, will also provide services at the Franklin location.

The projected opening date for the Community Health Hub is early 2024.

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