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CUMBERLAND- While they haven’t been directly impacted as heavily by nationwide shortages of health care professionals, staff from the Tri-State Community Health Center told Rep. David Trone on Wednesday that they’ve felt the COVID-19 crunch in other ways.

Trone, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s 6th Congressional district, visited the health center as part of a two-day tour of Western Maryland during which he visited sites in Washington and Allegany counties on Wednesday, with plans for further stops in Allegany and Garrett on Thursday .

Tri-State operates five clinics in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Executive Director Susan Walter said, and annually serves 20,000 patients between its locations, although that amount “really dipped” to around 18,000 in 2020. Many of the center’s patients are low- income. Walter said the organization received a total of $7 million in federal grants during the pandemic.

The health care group operates a Kelly Road primary care clinic and an obstetrics and gynecology clinic in Cumberland on the grounds of UPMC Western Maryland, along with primary care facilities in Hancock, McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania and Berkeley Springs, West Virginia.

While they were in the process of trying to gain mental health clinicians prior to the onset of COVID-19, Walter said, the pandemic waylaid their progress. Accordingly, they collaborate with providers who offer support for substance use disorder and mental health concerns.

It’s “outlandishly a problem” trying to attract such providers to rural areas, Trone said, as there is “a scarcity of folks to come and do the work.”

Walter commended the health center’s staff and said their turnover has remained low.

“People are so committed to coming to work, which was really, really difficult,” Walter said. “We learned that the stamina of our staff is incredible. They all deserve wings.”

Mandy Blackburn, the site manager at the Kelly Road clinic, said they see “a ton” of patients seeking help for SUD. Transportation to access necessary care is often difficult for some in the first place, she noted. Many end up in treatment in Frederick or in Logan, West Virginia, because of low availability locally.

“Most of them don’t either have a ride, or someone don’t have a car that’s good enough to get them where they need to go, because usually it’s out of town,” Blackburn said. “Of course, there’s not much in Cumberland for them. They can’t all stay at the hospital.”

Some patients living with SUD, Blackburn noted, sometimes want forms of treatment that are unavailable or experience problems with the solutions offered. Many also experience long waits to see specialists as needed.

The center’s gynecological practice also sees patients struggling with improper substance use, site manager Diane Markwood said. Patients are asked about substance use, mental health and more when they are seen, said Markwood, which helps connect them with the right resources.

Walter said another challenge is keeping wages competitive to entice new workers and retain existing ones.

“If UPMC has to raise their rates, we have to be able to do that, too,” Walter said. “We have not experienced, thank God, people leaving and saying ‘I don’t want to do this anymore,’ but that’s what’s happening nationally.”

The fiscal aid received as a result of the pandemic was a boon to that end, Walter said. The funds also helped the center purchase a trailer to use as a testing and vaccination station.

“We want (staff) to be happy and fulfilled and paid equally,” Walter said. “That’s where the COVID funds that came down for us were fabulous. We were able to use some of that for hazard pay, raises and bonuses.”

Throne commended center staff for performing “the ultimate customer service.”

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