In the summer of 1997, Donald Joslin, Chairman of the Mohawk Valley Network (MVN) Board of Directors, suggested that in addition to all the health care the Network provided through Faxton-St. Luke’s and its other 17 affiliates something more should be done for the most underserved in our area.

Leo Griffin, an MVN Vice President, contacted Mary Breslow, the director of the Sister Barbara Ginter Center, which provided free primary care services on Eagle Street in Utica.  Mary introduced MVN to Father Fred Daly, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish just across the street.

In the fall of 1997, MVN and St. Francis de Sales conducted a community forum to identify the three most important health care needs of the inner city.  Wary of being just another community needs assessment that sits on the shelf; the partners set two significant ground rules:

• “ Doable Actions” – The forum should identify issues that we can do something about at the grassroots level.  For example, we knew we could not cure cancer or end poverty, but we could do something that would produce tangible results at the local level.

• “Community Partnerships” – The Forum was to result in community partnerships to address the issues, as opposed to passing the issues off to one agency to take action.

Initial brainstorming by the 30 people attending the Forum identified 17 health care needs.  Through discussion and multi-voting those narrowed to three “doable” action areas, in which tangible results were expected in 18 months.  Action teams were formed to address the following:

• Provision of pharmaceuticals for those unable to pay and without insurance.

• Primary health services for children.

For the next year-and-a-half the teams met at least once a month to create specific programs to provide actual services.  Also, an Infrastructure Committee was formed to coordinate the teams’ actions and provide a home for HealthFriends.  The Parish arranged for two VISTA volunteers to support the committees.

When the Sister Ginter Center announced that it was closing, the three teams were ready to implement their programs and HealthFriends moved into the Ginter space and opened its doors on August 2, 1999.  Start up grants came from Centrex Clinical Laboratories (an MVN affiliate), The Community Foundation of Herkimer and Oneida Counties, and Blue-Cross of Utica-Watertown.

Sister Nancy Kirk-Barkmen, a Franciscan nun, was the first coordinator of HealthFriends.  With the assistance of VISTA and community volunteers HealthFriends began serving those in need.

The Dental Committee, under the leadership of Mary Beth McCall, Medical Director of Faxton-St. Luke’s, recruited 21 dentists to provide free full course dental care for needy children 4 to 18 years old.

The Primary Care Committee, chaired by the Rev. Kirk Hudson, created a system to provide full physical exams for children with referral to a primary care physician if necessary.  More than 100 children were screened in HealthFriends’ first year.

The Pharmacy Committee, headed by Bill Woodward, Director of Faxton-St. Luke’s Pharmacy, found a “legal” and efficient way for HealthFriends to get free medication for the needy.  Using a software program called Indicare; HealthFriends could link to most of the national pharmaceutical companies’ free indigent care programs.  Since only physicians and pharmacies can dispense medications, the committee created a system where HealthFriends does the paperwork on Indicare for the patient, but the medication is sent to the prescribing physician who gives it to the patient.  This is the core mission of the HealthFriends Pharmaceutical Program.  However, since it can take three to six weeks for medications to arrive from the national pharmaceutical companies, HealthFriends committed to purchasing medications at a special rate from selected local pharmacies to fill “the gap” and get patients through the most critical early stages of their illness.  Fund raising to provide there short-term medications has been one of HealthFriends’ major challenges from day one.

Early in 2000, HealthFriends obtained a $90,000 two–year grant from the Community Foundation to expand the Pharmaceutical Program to the Senior Community in Herkimer and Oneida Counties.  Bob Kloster was hired to administer the grant.  Catholic Charities of Herkimer County offered HealthFriends a satellite location in its Ilion office.  In 2002, Sister Nancy moved on to another ministry and Bob became the Director of HealthFriends, assisted by one staff person, Cindy Weistling.

Surprisingly the primary care and dental missions of HealthFriends waned due to the lack of referrals and follow-up by the families of needy children.  These efforts were also impacted by New York State’s implementation of Child Health Plus.

However, the demand for medications continued to grow and by 2004 was out striping HealthFriends’ ability to raise money to support the program.  In Spring of that year, HealthFriends temporarily suspended its purchase of short-term drugs to fill “the gap” before the free medications arrive for the patients.  Fortunately an emergency grant from the Community Foundation rescued HealthFriends.

That year, HealthFriends beefed up its Fund Raising Program and also had its first Celebration of HealthFriends Reception.  It has grown into HealthFriends major fund development event along with the St. Francis de Sales Golf Tournament, the annual Fall Flower Sale, Christmas Appeal, and major grant and gift development.  The major thrust of the Executive Director’s job is now fund development.  Cindy Weistling has left the area and Mary Jones now coordinates the volunteers and internal operations.

Structural changes at both St. Francis de Sales and MVN, plus the need to have Board skilled at fund development, led to the formal incorporation of HealthFriends in 2006.  In 2007, HealthFriends developed its Board to focus on refining its mission, creating the organization’s vision for the coming years, and strengthening its fund development efforts.

Prepared by:

Leo P. Griffin

President of HealthFriends

January, 2007