Grand Forks' Third Street Clinic shifts focus with health care in flux

Judy Swisher remembers when a man came to her pharmacy on the brink of his prescription medicine running out. It was a mental health drug, she said, and without it he risked slipping into depression once again.

Judy Swisher talks about the different aspects of the Third Street Clinic at Inspire Pharmacy in downtown Grand Forks on Thursday, May 11, 2017. (Joshua Komer/Grand Forks Herald)

Judy Swisher remembers when a man came to her pharmacy on the brink of his prescription medicine running out. It was a mental health drug, she said, and without it he risked slipping into depression once again.

Swisher is the owner of Inspire Pharmacy, which is nestled next to the Third Street Clinic at 360 Division Ave. It's been open for about a year, and its biggest mission is helping people like the young man, who, after losing his insurance, couldn't afford the $200 price of a refill. After making sure he fit eligibility requirements, Swisher said he paid a $5 copay and got the medicine he needed.

"He'd had an injury, and while he was off work, his insurance ran out," Swisher said. "He knew that without this drug he was going to have struggles. ... And he left the pharmacy, I think there were tears of joy in his eyes. His whole manner changed."

Inspire's minority owner is Third Street Clinic, which Swisher said paid the difference between the copay and the wholesale price of the drug. The pharmacy has become the clinic's primary program in recent years as it's moved away from physician referrals, once one of its mainstays, to avoid duplicating what similar organizations provide.

Offices on the second floor of the same building are open fewer hours after the March departure of its executive director and the clinic is staffed part time by volunteers. But advocates say its mission to help the needy get medical care is as important as ever, especially given potential changes in health care law.


The clinic opened in 1989 as a weekly medical clinic where guests could see a physician for free-"no questions asked," its website boasts-and after the flood of 1997 focused on helping needy clients get medical care from doctors in the area. Since the 2014 launch of Valley Community Health Center, which has a strong focus on medical and dental care, Third Street has moved to carve out a new niche for itself, focusing on making medication more affordable for the local public. Support is designed to last about a month, giving clients time to bridge gaps to more sustainable support.

"What I really want is Third Street Clinic to continue to be meeting some of these behavioral health medications, to be part of the community solution, to be addressing the mental health crises," said Lyn Boese, chairwoman of the clinic's board of directors, listing social problems fed by a lack of access to such drugs, including opioid addiction and "family crises."

"A lot of the solution to that is keeping people on their medication," she said. "We can't do the whole job, but we want to be part of the solution."

The clinic is facing a future without its executive director. Lynnell Simonson Popowski was hired in October 2014 and had since helped launch a new strategic plan to help guide it toward the services it offers now, which also includes help with vision care.

"To be responsible with our donors' money, we needed to hire a different administrator at a different skillset at a lower payscale," Popowski said on Thursday, calling the decision to part ways "mutual." Though she declined to speak about the clinic's current situation, she called it "a good, solid nonprofit. ... It's got some growing pains right now, but I really think they're going to come out successful."

Asked about the clinic's finances, Clinic Board Vice President Meggen Sande said that money is tight for a lot of nonprofits. She, like other group leaders, stressed that Inspire Pharmacy is a full-service location-it can fill a range of prescriptions to anyone, not just those who qualify for assistance-and the more customers it has, the more funding for Third Street and the program it offers.

The future of the organization is tough to predict with health care as a whole also facing a future in which national policy could shift. New health care legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in a close vote earlier this month is soon to be considered by the Senate and would cut federal spending on Medicaid. Swisher frets that such policies could make the Third Street Clinic's mission all the more necessary.

Sande said the clinic's board isn't looking to hire anyone new to replace Popowski yet, opting instead to watch for what the next best steps will be and what skills the next director should have. In the meantime, supporters of the clinic are volunteering their time to help keep the organization running.


"You do wear a lot of hats. It's a small organization, and you need to have a good business sense, you need to have good social awareness. You need to be a fundraiser, a marketer."

And for many at the clinic, the focus will continue to stay on those who need care.

"At this point, we see people's' health, mental and physical, the biggest gap is accessing the medication that they need to be able to be healthy," Boese said. "If you've got insurance, you should not have an issue, but there's so many of us that have no options."

What To Read Next
Get Local