Mental health care accessibility is the Access 304 goal | Journal-news

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Dr. Ashley Shepard has taken the first steps to make her vision of affordable, accessible mental health care in West Virginia a reality.

In March, she established a nonprofit mental health care facility in Shepherdstown called Access 304.

“I was raised in Jefferson County — K-12,” Shepard said. “My husband is in the Marine Corps, so I’ve lived most of my adult life outside of West Virginia but really wanted to come back, because I could see a difference in the mental health services that were being offered and provided in larger cities — places like Southern California — were not available to us here in West Virginia.

“I have been back in the area for two years,” she said. “He’s still in the Marine Corps. I’ve been a clinician for over 10 years, but I’ve really just been back here for two.”

Shepard said when he was living here as a youth, he remembered driving long distances in order to attend a simple doctor’s appointment. The task of finding a nearby doctor who “accepts your insurance” is one that Access 304 is aiming to eliminate.

“Here in West Virginia, you have to travel so far for health care just to receive the same services that someone in Loudoun County gets on every other block,” Shepard said.

The Access 304 offers sessions as low as $40 an hour, which is more than half off the average session rate in the area.

“If you’re going to pay private pay with a therapist in this area — regardless of what you make — it’s probably going to be around $150 a session,” Shepard said. “Being a non-profit, we’re able to set our own rates. The single mom or the college student can pay $40 a session.”

At Access 304, care is not dictated “by some arbitrary person at an insurance company,” whether or not a client is starting or stopping.

“I’ve been at the VA finishing up my doctorate and then opened up a private practice, where I was taking insurance, which I have found to be a barrier to care in a lot of ways,” Shepard said. “So, for example, I had a client whose insurance changed in the new year. Dad had some health issues, so they were going back and forth to Morgantown, because that’s where he was getting his care, and they had to stop therapy with me, because they couldn’t pay the private pay rate.

“Just because their insurance changed, the client had a significant mental health decline and now, has had to ask for assistance from the school district to pay for sessions while I’m pursuing credentialing with insurance. So Access 304, hopefully, will be able to meet that gap,” she added.

The next goal of Access 304 is to offer specialized care to locals, which is something that Shepard believes is lacking. As the practice grows, so will the types of care clients can receive.

“For example, I wanted to get play therapy for my son, and there’s a certification for play therapists,” she said. “There’s a certain way that you interact with a child in a play therapy environment, and, for maybe a few reasons, we don’t have any certified play therapists here.

“So, what I would like to do with the nonprofit is to have a pool of money set aside for the clinicians to get trained in these special modalities. That way we don’t have to go to Loudoun County. I would have had to take my 5-year-old to Leesburg to get this specific treatment, and then, we opted not to do it.”

Shepard said he was excited to see more and more individuals interested in joining the Access 304 team.

“We are up and running currently,” she said. “We have a clinician who’s joined us, and we’ve had a lot of other clinicians who are interested within just a week or two of having a job posting. We’ve had five interested, capable clinicians interested in joining us.”

Shepard is also looking forward to working with college students who are beginning their clinical careers.

“We also have an art therapist joining us in the fall as a student,” she said. “Access 304 also has contracts with Salisbury University and West Liberty University to take students to gain clinical experience.

As Access 304 starts to grow, funding the nonprofit will be a subject of concentration for Shepard.

“As a new nonprofit, we’re looking for donors, and we’re looking for organizations in the community to partner with to be able to provide employee assistance.”

Shepard is licensed in West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania and is able to conduct telehealth appointments with clients in these states.

Access 304 is located at 207 S. Princess St. in Shepherdstown. Visit www.access304.com for more information about services and employment opportunities.

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