NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Access to health care in rural counties has become even more critical with the COVID-19 pandemic. A new project set to start in several weeks hopes to ease the burden.
Project Rural Recovery is a federal-funded initiative spearheaded by the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to help patients in rural communities with limited medical resources. The project will deploy two mobile clinics to 10 counties in Middle and East Tennessee: Lawrence, Lewis, Marshall, Perry, Wayne, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Hancock, and Jefferson. The counties are considered distressed and need more services.
Buffalo Valley, Inc. and Helen Ross McNabb Center are the providers that are transforming buses into clinics on wheels. Designing the exterior of the buses has gotten underway this week. The bus will hold two exam rooms and a waiting room.
The clinics would provide a closer resource for families who may have to drive over an hour to receive medical assistance. It is the reality for many people after at least 12 rural hospitals have shuttered over the last few years.
Buffalo Valley, Inc. President Deborah Hillin said her team includes nurse practitioners, a medical assistant and a behavioral case manager. She is still searching for a licensed professional counselor or licensed clinical social worker since the mobile clinic will not only provide primary care but behavioral health services as well.
"It's almost like a one-stop-shop," Hillin told NewsChannel 5. "They [mental health issues] could be amplified because of COVID and could be an underlying thing that people didn't realize."
The mobile clinic will be in each of the counties once a week. TDMHSAS Director of Strategic Initiatives Jessica Ivey said the organizations will be working with the community to make connections in case of needs out of their scope.
"Once we get a person into a mobile bus, then we will be able to create those connections to other services that they may have not thought if it wasn't for us being there," Ivey said.
The $10 million federal grant will help support the project for at least five years. The mobile clinics are expected to be available by the first week of November.
Once fully implemented, the program hopes to serve about 2,000 Tennesseans at about 4,800 clinic visits per year.
TDMHSAS spokesperson Matthew Parriott said having COVID-19 tests available at the clinics will have to be determined closer to opening day.