Helping People

This clinic provides a free lifeline to the uninsured in the Florida Keys

John Walsh sits on a lawn chair outside the Good Health Clinic in the small Upper Florida Keys community of Tavernier one recent morning.

Walsh, 53, is one of about a dozen people waiting to get a free teeth-cleaning inside a mobile dental office parked at the clinic.

The bus, which belongs to the nonprofit Caring For Miami, is staffed with volunteer dentists and hygienists and has just about everything inside it that you’d expect to find at a typical dental office.

“For outreach like this, we do extractions, fillings, cleanings and at no cost at all to the patients,” said Mary Wick, community outreach coordinator for Caring For Miami.

It’s part of the group’s Project Smile initiative that it started with the Good Health Clinic after Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Kate Banick, executive director of the Good Health Clinic, which provides free healthcare to Keys residents who don’t have insurance, said the doctors practicing there saw a need because so many patients coming in had dental issues and infections that were exacerbating existing medical conditions.

“You can’t take care of the medical stuff while their mouths are a mess,” Banick said.

Project Smile is funded by Baptist Health, Christ Fellowship and the Ocean Reef Foundation, Wick said.

“All dental professionals are volunteers,” she said.

Walsh started coming to the Good Health Clinic about three years ago because he had an injured foot that prevented him from working. His injury was so severe that surgeons placed 24 pieces of titanium in his leg and three cadaver grafts, he said. But, afterward, the tendons in his foot that allow the toes to bend backward fused to scar tissue.

A volunteer surgeon with the clinic operated on his foot and significantly increased his mobility.

“They fixed my foot, and now I get to work eight hours,” Walsh said.

His line of work? “AFAB. Anything For A Buck,” he said with a smile. “Caregiver, haircuts, construction, whatever you need.”

That includes repairs at the Good Health Clinic, located at mile marker 91.5 on the ocean side of U.S. 1, Banick said.

“He’s very handy,” she said.

And, the reason Walsh chose to come to the clinic?

“I needed a doctor, and I was broke,” he said. “It’s expensive to live in the Keys.”

Walsh said he lives in a run-down, one-bedroom fixer-upper in Key Largo that costs him $875 a month in rent. He said rent has increased since Hurricane Irma tore through the island chain in September 2017, and destroyed much of what used to be considered affordable housing, like mobile homes and downstairs enclosures underneath stilt houses.

“Times have changed. If you’re going to survive here, you need a little help sometimes,” he said.

Like Project Smile, the Good Health Clinic relies largely on foundation and government grants to fund its roughly $500,000 a year operating budget. About 900 patients are registered at the Tavernier clinic, as well as a newly opened clinic in Marathon, Banick said.

Along with three paid part-time medical providers on staff, about a dozen Monroe and Miami-Dade general practice doctors and nurses, as well as specialists, volunteer their time and services to the clinic’s patients.

In total, last fiscal year, Banick said more than 100 medical professionals donated time to Good Health Clinic patient care. This includes about 2,000 in-clinic visits, as well as 1,000 outside care visits, including prescription drug assistance.

“I couldn’t say enough kind words about this place,” Walsh said. “It definitely provides a community service.”

Through partnerships with other nonprofits and pharmaceutical companies, the clinic has been able to provide medications to its patients that they would otherwise be unable to afford, Banick said. For example, 30 patients with hepatitis C were recently successfully treated there with the drug Harvoni, which is a daily treatment that can cure most people of the once-incurable disease in anywhere from one to four months.

The problem, especially for the uninsured, is that it is expensive.

“Pills are $1,000 a day, and you need one daily,” Banick said. “That’s not an option if you don’t have insurance.”

About 4 percent of the Keys’ population left after Irma, many of whom made up the archipelago’s workforce. But, still, many stayed, and more people move to the Keys every day who are uninsured and are barely able to make ends meet in the expensive tourism-dependent community.

“There are a lot of people still trying to make it down here,” Banick said. “But, they’re struggling.”

More information

For more information about the Good Health Clinic, including donation and volunteering opportunities, go to www.thegoodhealthclinic.org. For more information about Caring For Miami, go to www.caringformiami.org.

David Goodhue covers the Florida Keys and South Florida for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald. Before joining the Herald, he covered Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.
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