Volunteering ‘a blessing’ for ex-refugee

In the 1980s, Khanh Pham fled communist Vietnam with the help of the American Red Cross.

During her escape, the homeless refugee slept in shelters on a floor mat no bigger than her body, barely had any food and dreamed of living in the United States.

It was that experience that made the pharmacist want to give back to the Las Vegas community by volunteering her time to provide free health care and prescription drugs through the Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada, the state’s first free health care clinic program and one of 77 nationwide.

The program, established in 2008, is staffed with volunteer physicians and has a medical dispensary with a certified pharmacist, which allows health care providers to dispense prescriptions without the hassle of retail licensing and other hurdles. A new location, the Paradise Park Clinic, opened in January at 4770 N. Harrison Drive, west of McLeod Drive and north of Tropicana Avenue.

Patients must prove they are Clark County residents with a household income less than twice that of the federal poverty level. They must not qualify for other federal or state medical aid programs such as Medicare or Medicaid. An estimated 350,000 people were uninsured in Clark County last year.

“It’s a blessing to be here,” Pham said Thursday at the clinic’s first open house. “You don’t know where you’ll end up. This could happen to you. This is my chance to give back, and here I am.”

Pham has helped fill at least 20 patient prescriptions for insulin and other medications at the new clinic. Patients are responsible for mailing their forms to drug companies, which in turn mail the prescriptions directly to the person’s home. It takes an average 10-14 days to receive the drugs.

The clinic also has reserve drugs on hand to tide over patients in need. Drug companies have tracking numbers in their records that prevent patients from lying to obtain medication beyond what has been approved. The clinic stays in close contact with the companies.

“I cry when my 70-year-old patients with Parkinson’s (disease) don’t have insulin, when their hands shake and they have to try to fill that needle,” Pham said. “It’s just so cruel.”

County officials have approved the clinic for 6,000 patient visits annually, but that could change at any time, said Dr. Sarah Heiner, the clinic’s medical director, who has practiced in Las Vegas for 22 years.

“It’s all about getting as much as we can for nothing at all or for very little,” Heiner said. “We encourage patients to bring their bottles in and see if there’s anything that could be switched to a generic.”

Many patients who come to the clinic have conditions, such as diabetes, that have worsened over time because they cannot afford insurance or health care.

“It’s just awful,” Heiner said.

So how does a health care clinic provide free services and stay in business?

Word of mouth and generous private donors, Heiner said.

The clinic also signed teaching affiliation agreements with the University of Southern Nevada College of Pharmacy and others, which will bring in more funding.

“We have people come in and donate $10, it’s all privately funded,” Heiner said. “We have a dollar-a-day donation program. We’ll be looking into grants too, I’m sure.”

For more information or to donate visit online at www.vmsn.org.

Contact Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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