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A clinic on wheels: Agape looks to expand its reach

Substance abuse and behavioral health treatment as well as solutions for general medical issues will soon be easier to access for Beaufort County residents who cannot get to a doctor or hospital. A fully equipped mobile unit from local nonprofit Agape Health Services will begin regular visits throughout the county’s rural areas in mid-August.

“Beaufort County has had higher overdose death rates than the entire state of North Carolina,” said Agape Chief Behavioral Health Officer Gwen Gilbert, who added that the issue made national news in 2019, when the death counts in Aurora, Belhaven and Chocowinity alone included 19 people who overdosed on opioids. “That’s what spurred the idea for this unit,” Gilbert said, “because people in addiction don’t usually go public about their issues. We realized we needed to go to them.”

Gilbert said the vehicle is equipped for more than the substance abuse and behavioral health issues specifically related to the opioid epidemic.

“The overall health of addicted people degrades as their substance abuse issues increase,” Gilbert said, “so we recognized the benefits of providing a full menu of medical and behavioral heath services.”

The unit will include an employee who speaks Spanish.

Agape accepts all medical insurance providers. For uninsured patients, Agape provides a sliding fee scale based on income.

The vehicle is 37 feet long and rests on the chassis of a 2021 Ford F-65 truck. It features a reception area, two exam rooms, and a pharmacy with a medical-grade refrigerator that will include a supply of COVID-19 vaccines.

“We have all the tools normally provided in a medical office so we can gather information in real time, and a medi-pod that provides live translation of almost any language as well as sign language, which will enable our providers to interact with patients for whom English is not their primary language”, said Lawrence Doby, Agape’s executive director. He added that the medi-pod will also enable staff to provide live, virtual  access to the vital signs of patients if a medical issue requires the opinion of a doctor outside the mobile unit.

Gilbert said that excitement is growing among the Agape staff, especially about the ability to reach the county’s farming and fishing communities as well as children and the elderly, for whom a doctor’s visit can take an entire day because of public transportation schedules that do not offer the frequency of city buses.

Gilbert said a schedule of rotating locations is in the works, for areas including Aurora, Belhaven, Blounts Creek, Chocowinity, Pinetown and other Beaufort County locations, as well as some in other counties where residents have similar needs.

‘We are going to provide more services and reach more people. We want to take out the entire barrier of transportation,” Gilbert said, “so if they can’t get to us then we will get to them.”