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Nonprofit of the Year Meets People Where They Are in Health Care

The story of CommWell Health dates back to the late 1970s and a little country store in rural Sampson County. But one of the basic principles that drives CommWell Health today, meeting patients where they are, is just the modern application of a much older idea in practicing medicine – the house call.

It’s that commitment to treating underserved patients in Johnston County and the region that has earned CommWell Health the 2021

 Johnston Now Honors Nonprofit of the Year Award. 

And despite the fact that it offers top-notch medical, dental and behavioral healthcare from here to the coast, it is in fact a nonprofit organization.

“CommWell Health is a 501c3 nonprofit,” CommWell Health CEO Pam Tripp said. “The reason is because our Board of Governors comes from the different territories or communities that we serve. So, we are what they call a Federally Qualified Community Health Center, and what that means is we do get some subsidies from the government to help support our operations. It doesn’t, by far, meet our budget needs, but it does support it. …Those monies are given to us so we can help people who are uninsured or under-insured.”

“We do serve everyone, regardless of their ability to pay. if we didn’t have (the subsidy), there would be no way we could take care of those patients.”

The idea that there were coverage gaps among the population of rural areas is how CommWell, formerly TriCounty Community Health Center, got its start in 1976.

“It’s a beautiful story,” Tripp said. “there was a little country store at the crossroads in Sampson County. I always think about the good people of Johnston County, Harnett County and Sampson County. They came together and said, ‘We need a doctor. We need someone to come out here and help us.’ That was the first few years of the concept or the model of the Community Health Center. The doctor was not there every day, but he was there two or three days a week. And people could actually have access to see a doctor.”

“They saw that model of meeting people where they were as being really successful, and they kept building upon it.”

Of course, farm workers are a big part of the local economy – and a larger part of that number of underserved people that sparked the creation of CommWell Health and other organizations like it.

“We go out and help our farm workers,” Tripp said. “Those workers who are such an important part of North Carolina, we’ve literally been right to the fields, giving vaccinations at the end of the rows. …We’re not restricted to a building. We can go out and do outreach into homes, communities or marginalized communities. With hospitals, you’re restricted. But we’re able to go out and meet those needs.”

In 2017, CommWell Health introduced its dental mobile unit, designed to serve school children in Johnston, Sampson and Harnett Counties.

“We have actually had students that have come into our dental clinics that were labeled as a behavioral health issue when really and truly what was going on was the fact that they had cavities that were turning into abscesses,” she told Johnston Now in 2017. “They were in so much pain they couldn’t hold their heads up in class.”

“A lot of working parents find it challenging to get their children to the dentist. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just what the priorities are. The access is there. Taking care of those oral needs before they turn into something that can be extremely threatening to their health. …This could not be more important. You can not learn  until you are healthy.”

It worked so well, Tripp wanted to expand it.

“We liked the dental bus, but we do have behavioral health and we do medical, too,” she said. “So, we decided we needed an integrated mobile unit. We needed something that was flexible and could do all of it.”

The newest unit was unveiled earlier this year, and it is just one of the tools CommWell Health has used during the pandemic.

“One day, things were pretty normal,” Tripp said. “The next, the world kind of stopped. During that time, I never heard anybody – and we are pulling from everywhere. Administration, front desk people, dental assistants, anybody and everybody we could pull, we were pulling to do the testing. never did I hear anybody say, ‘This isn’t my job.’ It was like, ‘What can I do?”

“CommWell Health has some of the most amazing people that work there. We are so fortunate to have just highly engaged, missionminded individuals working at CommWell Health and they do deserve a lot of kudos and credit. But they don’t do it for that. …We have this thing called Eagle Excellence. They have this saying that our excellence tomorrow is greater than our excellence today. And that’s in everything. We are always looking for ways to improve. We’re never going to settle.”


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