The Oasis Free Clinic expansion will add double the size of psychiatric services

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

The Oasis Free Clinic in Brunswick will use $833,000 in federal funding to add space for psychological counseling and group therapy, both of which are new services, as well as additional dental and medical exam rooms.

Oasis plans to double and bring the footprint of the 2,000-square-foot clinic to more volunteer dentists, clinicians and consultants.

There is a small office space that is now used for counseling, but “since the pandemic, our patients’ need for mental health services has increased significantly,” said executive director Anita Ruff.

Funding would cover about 70% of the project’s cost, Ruff said. Due to ongoing supply chain issues, she was unable to provide specific numbers for the project.

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

Oasis, Maine’s largest free clinic, provides medical care to about 500 low-income and uninsured residents in the Midcoast, including Brunswick, Harpswell, Freeport, Durham and Sagadahoc counties, according to Ruff. This number is close to the number served in early 2020, but after a decrease 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 due in part 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 educate people about our services as we know there are many people who might be using them but aren’t accessing them,” she said.

“While we wish we weren’t needed, our goal is to provide the highest level of care in a respectful environment,” Ruff said. “Our patients are very diligent and many of them have two or three jobs.”

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

“We’ve grown 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 need in our community is overwhelming,” he said. “We could be open seven days a week and still struggle to scratch the surface, but this is a small step towards meeting that need.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the clinic had a core group of about 14 dental volunteers, but now only six remain. Many walked during the pandemic because of the high risk of exposure 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 protect vendors more effectively from COVID.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, requested funding for free clinic expansion in fiscal year 2023 for health and social services funding, according to a prepared press release from her office. The funds are expected to be available sometime in 2023.

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