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MEDICAL CLINIC TO CLOSE, YIELDING TO COMPETITION\ FOUNDED AS PART OF A 1970S RURAL HEALTH INITIATIVE, COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER CAN NO LONGER COMPETE WITH URBAN COMPANIES.
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MEDICAL CLINIC TO CLOSE, YIELDING TO COMPETITION\ FOUNDED AS PART OF A 1970S RURAL HEALTH INITIATIVE, COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER CAN NO LONGER COMPETE WITH URBAN COMPANIES.

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Allen Crawford has been coming to the small brick building along Snow Camp Road for his health care since he was a kid.

``They took care of assorted knocks, bumps and bruises for me,' said Crawford, 36, of Snow Camp, as he stood outside the Community Health Center.The small clinic is closing its doors today after nearly 25 years as the only option for medical care in the rural expanse of southern Alamance County.

``I can deal with it better than some of the older people,' Crawford said. ``It's going to be hard on those folks who are getting to where they don't like to drive.'

UNC Health Systems, which has operated the clinic since 1998, decided to close its operation because not enough patients were coming to see the clinic's one doctor.

``We see about 8-12 people a day,' office manager Jennifer Toney said. ``We had anticipated more development down this way. It didn't happen, and we haven't had the consistent patient volume we had hoped for.'

The clinic was built with state and local funds in the mid-1970s as part of a statewide effort to bring affordable primary medical care to rural communities, said Jim Bernstein, director of the state's Office of Rural Health.

``It's harder than ever for these clinics to stay open,' Bernstein said. Community Health Center is one of 81 clinics across the state that were built with at least partial state funding. ``The concept in the 1970s was to step in where there was a void, but so much has changed. ... Now with HMOs and the rapid technological advances, it's hard for these clinics to keep up. They're having a terrible time coping.'

Only three clinics have folded across the state so far, Bernstein said, but many others are feeling the strain of competing against large companies.

More insurance paperwork and fewer doctors willing to live in a rural community are major problems for rural clinics, problems exacerbated by increased competition from regional urban hospitals eager to recruit more patients.

``People in Snow Camp live in a rural setting, but they can drive easily to Chapel Hill, Burlington or Greensboro,' Bernstein said. ``Cities are competing hard to keep the flow of patients coming to them.'

The clinic's community board searched for a doctor willing to take over the clinic, but were unsuccessful, Toney said. That's not unusual, said Bernstein. ``To find a doctor that wants to live in a rural setting and has the personality to bring patients in is so hard,' he said. ``Personality, that's the main thing. Someone who can sit and talk with people. The odds aren't there.' Residents still hope that a doctor can be found, but they accept that the clinic is probably closed for good, said Alton Wilson, director of the clinic's board. ``The days of the country doctor seemed to have passed,' Wilson said. ``It's going to cause all sorts of hardship for some of these elderly people.'

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