Our partner highlight this month is the Illinois Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (IAFCC), a state association of Free and Charitable Clinics dedicated to improving access to quality healthcare for low-income individuals who are uninsured or underinsured. Based in Chicago, Illinois, IAFCC strengthens their member clinics’ abilities to provide quality services through providing them with resources, education, and advocacy. IAFCC also sponsors a large group of AmeriCorps VISTA Members who are hosted across their partner clinic sites, including here at Rx Outreach. We interviewed IAFCC’s Executive Director and two AmeriCorps VISTA Leaders about their organization, their services, and their resilience throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

We spoke to Melissa Maguire, the Executive Director, and VISTA Leaders Sofia Howson and Caitlin Bratland.  


How was the Illinois Association of Free and Charitable Clinics (IAFCC) started?

Melissa: IAFCC was started by a group of committed Free and Charitable Clinic leaders. Their goal was to find ways to support each other and to link with the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics in support of the great work that they do. IAFCC was started in 2005, and I joined in 2017, so there was a rich history prior to me. I attended IAFCC’s annual conference as a representative from another non-profit organization that had a clinic. When I was there, it felt to me like this is a community of pure healthcare; they just want to provide good healthcare to their community.

IAFCC has continued to grow and develop using a member approach. We have Free and Charitable Clinics on our board; we have committees comprised of clinic leaders; we get feedback from our members; and, our major policy initiatives are driven by our clinics. Overall, we originated as and continue to be member informed and member-driven.

What keeps me going is to learn from the Executive Directors, the doctors, the nurses, the students, the volunteers, and all of the individuals involved at Free and Charitable Clinics. I’m always amazed at how nimble they are in navigating providing quality healthcare with limited resources. Until everybody knows about Free and Charitable Clinics, I won’t be saying: “OK; we’re done.”


Can you tell us about IAFCC’s mission? How do you connect with it on a personal level?

Melissa: IAFCC’s mission is to increase the access to quality healthcare for the uninsured and underinsured in Illinois. Our strategic initiatives to accomplish this include increasing the capacity of our clinics and our members, broadening the awareness of our sector in Illinois, and elevating the state association’s capacity as well.

Sofia: I definitely connect with IAFCC’s mission on a personal level. I’ve always been very interested in health care and going into medicine. I served in the Peace Corps as a health volunteer in Togo, a small country in West Africa. During my time there, I saw how hard it can be to access health care. It empowered me to make it my mission to challenge those barriers when I become a healthcare practitioner. When I learned about IAFCC, I thought ‘this is right up my alley, I want to help connect people to healthcare that don’t otherwise have access to it in their everyday lives.’

Caitlin: My background is primarily in exercise and health science, so I look at healthcare from the lens of preventing people from having to go into the health system through eating well and exercising because two of the biggest causes of death right now in the US are hypertension and diabetes, which are both preventable illnesses.

Melissa: I am always humbled and amazed by the amazing work that our clinics do day in and day out for their patients. I am also impressed by the great resources and partners that our clinics have, like AmeriCorps VISTAs, that can take on a challenge and address what is in the best interest to their patients. So on a personal level, it makes me happy to see that these clinics provide incredible care for their patients while acting as wonderful training ground for the next generation of healthcare providers and advocates.


What does it mean to be a Free and Charitable Clinic? What kinds of gaps do these clinics fill in our current healthcare system?

Melissa: The magic of free and charitable clinics is their diversity. They really know how to address the healthcare gaps and needs of their communities. They design their care and their outreach based on the needs and resources of the communities. In certain parts of Illinois there might be a need for free healthcare in these big rural communities, where there might be a FQHC in one section of the county, but on the other side of the county have no way to get there, so there might be a free and charitable clinic that pops up. In the city of Chicago, what we tend to see is more patients who are undocumented or patients that have a huge level of mistrust and fear in the system.

Sofia: Additionally, a lot of our clinics work with patients who speak languages besides English. A lot of their work couldn’t be done without translators.

Melissa: What COVID brought to light is that the patients of our clinics really face barriers to health care. Some of these barriers include a lack of resources that prevents them from accessing clinics. Other barriers are the culture of the clinics. When that patient walks through the door, do they feel welcomed? Do they feel safe? Do they understand the information they are being given? So we provide trainings and resources to our clinics to look at what is needed to be culturally supported and appropriate for the patients they see. In doing so, our clinics are able to provide culturally and linguistically competent care.


What does it mean for a Free and Charitable Clinic to be a member of IAFCC?

Melissa: For the clinic themselves, it is based on what they want to get out of their membership. We have a monthly newsletter; we have an annual conference; we’re hosting Free and Charitable Clinics month in August. Our members can also receive a grant from us during Free and Charitable Clinics Month as well as additional resources to help them communicate with their community. Some members want to engage in our committees; they want to lead or be a part of the conversation. For some of our grants, it is required that the clinics share their findings with us. We want our clinics to learn from each other.

Sofia: As the state association, we receive a lot of the larger grant opportunities. As a member clinic, they can apply for a grant that we only distribute to our member clinics. For example, there was an organization that donated thousands of masks to IAFCC last year. As we were all working from home, we didn’t need the masks, so we offered them to all of our member clinics. I see IAFCC as the intermediary organization that connects patients to clinics. We aren’t actually the organization that is giving individuals the care they need, we’re just helping those clinics be really robust, and make sure they have resources to best care for their patients. As a VISTA leader, I don’t have a direct connection to eliminating barriers to care, but I feel like placing VISTAs at clinics who cannot afford to hire full-time staff members or are really struggling in areas like social media, that’s a way to help strengthen the clinic and its ability to treat their patients. Rather than focus on social media, now they have a VISTA who can work on social media and the full-time staff can focus on providing care for the patients.


How does IAFCC facilitate the connections between its member clinics?

Melissa: The Annual Conference is a pretty tangible way that we connect our clinics. The conference is a great opportunity for networking. We also have a monthly member call and a google group where clinics can ask each other questions. Clinics can also send me an email to get some advice from my experience with other clinics or connect them with other clinics who overcame a similar challenge. Our clinics are really phenomenal about connecting with each other and sharing their resources because they know that their peers are their best advocates and experts.

Sofia: Another huge way that IAFCC engages with our members is with our AmeriCorps VISTAs. What I really love about our VISTA program specifically is that our VISTA members are dispersed throughout Illinois, located in a bunch of different clinics across the state. My job is to connect with all of the VISTA members, but I have also been able to connect with all of the member clinics and create new and stronger partnerships.


Why is it important that your member clinics serve all patients who come through their doors, regardless of a patient’s ability to pay, their insurance status, or their residency status?

Melissa: All of these patients are our neighbors, and they are important people in our communities. Within many communities, having stable finances is required for receiving healthcare. It is important that we help our clinics provide quality, credible, and caring healthcare for the people in our community. It makes the patients healthier, and it makes the community healthier.

Sofia: For me personally, I see having access to healthcare and being healthy as basic human rights. Healthcare is not something that should be politicized or monetized. Everyone should be able to live a healthy lifestyle and be well, or at least have access to the healthcare they need to live healthily and be well. In that tone, we should not deny someone healthcare because they can’t afford it, because they can’t speak English, because they’re a female or a male, or because they are not a citizen.

Caitlin: I’m currently pursuing my Master’s in Public Affairs, and I have come to understand that, at some point, this healthcare will be paid for—whether that is upfront or at the back end. Healthcare shouldn’t cost this much, but just because the patient doesn’t pay, doesn’t mean that the care isn’t paid for.


Why did IAFCC decide to partner with Rx Outreach?

Melissa: It really feels like Rx Outreach wants to understand our clinics and their operations. You are always concerned about passing along your great resources to our patients. And, you guys are always there. We all know that access to medications is critical. When our clinics are faced with the challenge of providing healthcare to so many people, it becomes essential that Rx Outreach is there to take away some of that burden.


What about Rx Outreach’s mission to provide affordable medications to those in need do you connect with?

Melissa: Everything… But in seriousness, for the people who are uninsured and underinsured, chronic health conditions are a major issue. For two chronic health conditions, diabetes and hypertension, while lifestyle change and education are important, for many of our patients, access to quality medication is what is going to matter to that chronic health condition. Rx Outreach is a critical resource for our patients. Now that some of our clinics are transitioning from COVID testing and vaccines to normal care, getting medications to their patients is going to be critical. There is now a whole new group of uninsured patients. These are patients that had insurance prior to COVID, who lost their insurance, and have never had to navigate the healthcare sector without insurance. Often, they have no idea about where to start.


How can people support you and your mission?

Melissa: Get on our website (https://www.illinoisfreeclinics.org/)! If there is a committee that we have that you are interested in, join it (https://www.illinoisfreeclinics.org/who-we-are/committees/). If there is a clinic in your community that speaks to you, support them. And, if you are interested in learning more about our state association, please let me know. Additionally, you can donate directly to our organization (https://www.illinoisfreeclinics.org/donate/). We also invite people to follow and like us on social media.

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ilfreeclinics?lang=en.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/IAFCC.org