Oasis Free Clinic expansion will add mental health services, double the size

Lauren Farago, dental assistant at Oasis Free Clinic, with a patient. Contribution / Anita Ruff

The free Oasis clinic in Brunswick will use $833,000 in federal funds to add space for mental health counseling and group therapy, both of which are new services, as well as additional dental and medical exam rooms .

Oasis is looking to double the clinic’s 2,000 square foot footprint and bring on more dentists, clinicians and volunteer advisors.

There is a small office now used for counselling, but “since the pandemic, the needs of our patients for mental health services have increased significantly,” said chief executive Anita Ruff.

The funding would cover about 70% of the cost of the project, Ruff said. She could not provide a firm figure for the project due to ongoing supply chain issues.

“We never received federal funding, so our organization had to operate on the generosity of our community members,” Ruff said.

Oasis, which is Maine’s largest free clinic, provides medical care to about 500 low-income and uninsured Midcoast residents, including Brunswick, Harpswell, Freeport, Durham and Sagadahoc County, according to Ruff. This number is close to those served at the start of 2020, but after a drop to 337 patients in 2021.

According to the United Health Foundation, 8% of Mainers were uninsured in 2019, up from about 10% in 2010, likely in part due to the expansion of Medicaid and MaineCare in the state.

Ruff stressed the importance of understanding that “not everyone has access to health insurance,” even those who are employed.

“We’ve worked hard to let people know about our services, knowing that there are a lot of people who could use them but don’t have access to them,” she said.

“While we wish to be unnecessary, our goal is to provide the highest level of care in a respectful environment,” Ruff said. “Our patients work very hard and many of them have two or three jobs.”

The clinic’s volunteer dental director, Dr. Rick Elsaesser, said the current facility has “a huge space problem.”

“We grew up outside of our space and we’re on top of each other,” he said.

Elsaesser said he hopes to increase the number of paid hygienists at the clinic and partner with the Biddeford-based University of New England Dental School.

“The dental care needs in our community are enormous,” he said. “We could be open seven days a week and it would still be hard to scratch the surface, but this is a small step towards meeting that need.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the clinic had a core of about 14 dental volunteers, but now there are only six. Many left during the pandemic due to the high risk of being exposed to the virus during dental procedures, Elsaesser said.

Oasis has updated its ventilation system to increase air exchange and has better personal protective equipment to more effectively protect providers against COVID.

Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has requested funding for the expansion of free clinics as part of the fiscal year health and human services funding bill 2023, according to a statement prepared by his office. Funds will likely be available sometime in 2023.

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