SALEM — An organization that provides medical care to thousands of low-income residents on the North Shore's is continuing to treat patients during the pandemic almost entirely by phone.

North Shore Community Health Inc. President and CEO Margaret Brennan said the nonprofit made a quick transition to tele-health once the state declared that the visits would be covered by MassHealth, the state's insurance program for people with low incomes. Its staff has seen only a handful of patients in person since switching to telephone health appointments on March 30.

"Our patients are really happy not to have to leave the house," Brennan said. "We wanted to make sure we would be there for them."

North Shore Community Health is a community health center that serves as the primary medical provider for more than 13,000 residents on the North Shore and Cape Ann. More than 90% of its patients live at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, and nearly 30% have no medical insurance, according to the organization. It has a staff of 133, including doctors, nurse practitioners, dentists, and behavioral health and addiction specialists, with offices in Salem, Peabody and Gloucester.

The sites in Peabody and Gloucester have been closed during the pandemic. If clients show up, they can ring a video doorbell to set up a telephone visit. If they don't have a phone, a staff member will be deployed to visit them in person, Brennan said.

Not all of the patients have smart phones so the tele-health visits do not always include video. But Brennan said patients have embraced the phone appointments as a way to continue to see their provider without the risk of going to the office. 

"They're scared and they really, really like tele-health," she said. "We're busier than we were pre-COVID."

Brennan said the tele-health visits actually last longer than in-person appointments, giving patients more time with their providers.

North Shore Community Health has received $1.9 million from the federal government's paycheck protection program design to help businesses during the pandemic, Brennan said.

"It was a game-changer for us because we were really worried we weren't going to be able to make it if we weren't going to get significant help," she said. "It was a recognition that the work that we do is valuable."

The organization furloughed about 30 dental workers at the start of the pandemic, but has since brought them back to work as contact tracers as part of a state-wide initiative to contact people who may have been in touch with an infected person.

North Shore Community Health has also sent mobile teams to test high-risk people in homeless shelters and group homes in Salem, Peabody, Beverly and Gloucester.

Brennan said the staff is doing the kind of outreach work it hasn't been able to do in the past, reaching out to its most vulnerable patients with pre-existing conditions like diabetes and asthma. They're also calling their patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, sometimes twice day.

"We're worried about them," she said. "We want to make sure they don't get too sick."

Jack Vondras, the chairman of North Shore Community Health board of directors, said the staff performed "outrageously" well in making the transition to tele-health.

"As soon as Medicare approved that method for billings on Friday, we were ready to roll on Monday," he said.

North Shore Community Health requires that at least 51 percent of its board members be patients of the organization. Vondras, a retired public health official and former Gloucester health director who has private insurance, said he recently had a productive tele-visit with his NSCH doctor. He's hoping the government will extend coverage for such appointments even after the pandemic.

"We're hoping this is something we can continue to do," he said. "The clients like it."

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535 or pleighton@salemnews.com.

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