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Seafood festival Aug. 31 will help the Ocracoke Health Center

The Ocracoke Health Center trauma room. Photo: C. Leinbach

Is the Ocracoke Health Center the most important nonprofit on Ocracoke Island?

Maybe so since one’s health is one’s most important asset, isn’t it?

There is no question that the Ocracoke community is amazingly generous for countless causes: youth sports, education, heritage, childcare, artists, the fire company, our churches, island animals, numerous festivals and spur-of-the-moment fundraisers for individuals.

Stepping into that mix to raise about $160,000 for much-needed building repairs is the Ocracoke Health Center, as vital a service as the fire company for both the community and its many visitors.

It’s inching toward that goal, having raised $8,400 last fall with a few small fundraisers, said Cheryl Ballance, who is CEO of both the Ocracoke and Engelhard medical centers.  The Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board in January awarded the center $57,000 for capital improvements and $26,600 for building repairs this year after July 1.

And now, the health center has stepped into the serious fundraising arena and is mounting a grand seafood festival on Aug. 31 in the Berkley Barn.

“We hope to raise $80,000,” said Tracy Kelley, a part-time islander who is helping as a member of the center’s capital campaign committee.

Keeping small rural health centers operating is a never-ending funding challenge.

With an added source of income through fundraising each year, Ballance said the center could possibly offer evening hours, pharmacy or dental services, or even facilitate home oxygen supplies.

The Ocracoke Health Center is a community owned and operated, private non-profit with 501c3 designation. In order to survive, it merged a few years ago with the Engelhard Clinic on the mainland.

While that union allowed both centers to receive federal funding, still, it does not cover all of the health center’s expenses, Ballance said.

The outside siding of the Ocracoke Health Center needs repair. Photo: C. Leinbach

One reason is because of the unusual and complicated health care business model. With health care, both the patients and the providers typically have contracts with insurance companies who may or may not pay for all of the charges, resulting in the health center having to write off potential income. 

“Also, you are never refused care at the Ocracoke Health Center if you are unable to pay for services,” Ballance says.  “A discount plan based on your income and family size is offered to all patients, even if you have insurance.”

This past fiscal year, Ocracoke Health Center discounted $118,000 in services to Ocracoke patients, she said.

This leaves the Health Center to cover the costs of those who can’t pay and thus leaves little or no money for infrastructure repairs let alone equipment.

And most all grant sources–whether public or private—limit their funding to specific programs, not capital needs like equipment or building repair.

Our one doctor (Dr. Erin Baker) and her staff need the tools to keep the center as up-to-date as possible, but being an island, Ocracoke lacks services other areas take for granted.  

We have next-day prescription delivery, bloodwork and other basic lab tests, but dental services and other medical specialties require off-island trips.

Visitors might be surprised to learn that Ocracoke does not have an X-ray machine, but such a machine is not feasible for a small health center because of equipment maintenance, software support, and all of the upkeep and certifications, Ballance said. 

“We would also need to be doing all types of x-rays daily to maintain proficiency, safety and accuracy,” she said.  X-rays are better done at a hospital where a radiologist can read it immediately and order treatment.

Important renovations are underway. A rotting wall and adjacent floor is being replaced and an extra bathroom is being installed, as well as replacement of rotting windows and siding.  More structural upgrades are needed to improve the integrity and efficiency of the building as funds are available.

The community must support our health center.

The Outer Banks Hospital in Nags Head is 84 ferry/vehicle miles from the village and takes at least 2 ½ hours. Via Swan Quarter, the nearest hospital is in (little) Washington, Beaufort County. A Vidant hospital in Belhaven (about a 30-minute drive from Swan Quarter) was closed several years ago.

On any given day, unexpected road and bridge closures, ferry delays and weather events can make a trip for medical services impractical if not impossible.

A last resort in emergencies is a medevac, which requires a helicopter to come from Greenville or Norfolk.

So, making sure our health center is the best it can be should be an island-wide fundraising priority.

Then, the “I wish we had….” statements heard from villagers about what we don’t have can turn into, “Wow, we have this here now?” exclamations.

Those wishing to make a donation can contact the health center at 252-928-1511, or send donations by mail to P.O. Box 543, Ocracoke, NC 27960.

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