|BVMI’s executive director, Norma Gindes, and Dr. Samuel Cassell Courtesy BVMI|
When Dr. Samuel Cassell ascended the bimah of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation B’nai Israel two weeks ago to recite a haftarah and deliver a d’var Torah, he had much to celebrate.
Not only was the longtime physician and founder of the Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative marking his 50th wedding anniversary, but his fourth grandchild just had been born.
And – adding support to the saying that good things come in threes – Cassell recently had been awarded the Governor’s Jefferson Award for public service, an honor given by the state “to people who don’t expect reward or recognition.”
“Norma Gindes, the BVMI executive director, asked me for permission to apply for it,” he said. “I asked if it would do BVMI any good and she said the publicity would definitely be helpful. So I said, ‘go for it.'”
The Jefferson Awards program was founded in 1972 by Sam Beard, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Senator Robert Taft Jr. to honor people who perform outstanding community service. The State of New Jersey’s website notes that these awards are the official volunteer recognition program of the U.S. Senate and the White House.
The Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative is a volunteer nonprofit organization that provides free primary and preventive medical care to low-income working people in Bergen County who do not have insurance or the means to pay for care.
According to Cassell, BVMI – which is on Moore Street in Hackensack – is the only state-licensed ambulatory care facility in the county that offers free health care to people whose income is 100 to 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and who are not eligible for government-funded health insurance.
The retired physician, who practiced medicine for 36 years – first in Paterson, later in Fair Lawn – called his work with BVMI “very rewarding personally. You can’t help but feel you’re doing something worthwhile for people in need and for the community as a whole.”
Since the center opened in 2009, some 50 volunteer physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, nutritionists, and others have treated more than 1,000 patients.
“It’s almost amazing how many people want to do this and have stepped in and become part of the organization,” Cassell said, describing the clinic as “a wonderful place to work.”
Cassell recalled attending a funeral in 2004 and meeting a journalist “who talked about improving the world. I told him we had taken a Vietnamese child and arranged for a harelip operation,” he said. “She and her mom stayed in our house for two months. I also told him about a medical mission I joined in Haiti. At the end of the luncheon he asked if I had thought of doing anything locally, like maybe opening an office for people who can’t afford medical care.”
Intrigued by the idea, he promised to follow it up. Several weeks later, he called the Interreligious Fellowship for the Homeless, learning from them the extent of homelessness in Bergen County and the critical need for medical care.
Becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of health care for many county residents, he invited a few people to help him craft a solution.
“I called Earl Wheaton, an internist at Valley Hospital; Dave Roth, a former partner of mine; Janet Finke, who was involved with Jewish Family Service; and Charles Kordula, a semi-retired surgeon who went on the medical mission to Haiti with me,” he said.
After learning about the work of Dr. Jack McConnell, who established the first Volunteers in Medicine Center in Hilton Head, S.C., in 1992, Cassell visited several VIMs across the country and decided, “We can do that.”
“We learned as we went,” he said. “We had a rough idea – open an office, get some doctors, find some money, spread the word. As we moved forward, more people came on board.” Those people ranged from public health experts to retired hospital directors to college professors.
With the help of a community development grant of some $200,000, the nonprofit clinic was ready to open in November 2009.
Cassell said that local institutions, such as area hospitals, have rallied to help his health care facility. He cited a study showing that in communities with such clinics the number of visits to hospital emergency rooms decreases. “That’s why hospitals have agreed to see our patients free of charge for things like CAT scans, colonoscopies, and MRIs,” he said. “In addition, Quest does all our diagnostics for free.
“We had no idea it would get this big,” he continued. “It’s an amazing thing how people have come on board.” While the clinic has several salaried employees, “all the troops are volunteers.”
Cassell said he still goes into the clinic almost every day, working the phones to help find doctors for patients who need to see a specialist.
“Some say, ‘We don’t do that,'” he said. “Others are just wonderful.”
He noted that under the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid may now be available to those living at 150 percent of the poverty level.
“If that happens, we will go to 250 percent,” he said. “We have to care for those who can’t afford it.”