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Erlanger expands Andrews clinic hours as local doctor faces criminal charges

The Erlanger team and community leaders celebrated expanded hours at the Andrews clinic with a ribbon cutting.
Lilly Knoepp
The Erlanger team and community leaders celebrated expanded hours at the Andrews clinic with a ribbon cutting.

Patients seeking basic health care access in Western North Carolina face many challenges- cost, a lack of providers and sometimes a long travel time to a clinic. Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital in Murphy is the furthest west hospital in the state before the Tennessee line. The health system also operates clinics in the surrounding area.

Earlier this month Erlanger officials and community members cut a ribbon at the Andrews clinic to mark the expansion of hours to offer primary and urgent care on the weekends and after 5pm.

Practice manager Richelle Phillips said the expansion of hours would better serve the community.

“Our goal is to provide high quality healthcare to the community, so we are excited to announce that we are opening the clinic to express care so we will be able to take walk-in patients seven days a week,” Phillips said in a speech to those in attendance. She works with outpatient clinics as well as in-patient service for rehab and wound care.

The Erlanger clinic door lists the practice physicians Dr. Thomas Clayton and Dr. Gary Roper.
Lilly Knoepp
The Erlanger clinic door lists the practice physicians Dr. Thomas Clayton and Dr. Gary Roper.

One noticeable feature of the otherwise celebratory gathering was etched on the door: the name of Dr. Thomas Clayton, a longtime physician at Erlanger. Just a few weeks prior, Clayton was arrested on 16 felony counts of charges ranging from human trafficking to sexual offenses. Court documents show seven alleged victims. Clayton also had a history of disciplinary violations and drug use, including probation by the medical licensing authority in Florida, according to medical board documents.

Clayton saw patients at the hospital as well as the Andrews clinic which Erlanger acquired in its purchase of the hospital in 2018.

The Andrews clinic will now be operated by Dr. Gary Roper, two nurse practitioners, a behavioral health specialist and others. The clinic’s newest doctor, Dr. Anisaa Romano Perry, will start seeing patients this month. She is working solely at the Andrews clinic. She was hired before Clayton’s arrest, according to Erlanger.

Clayton’s arrest means one less primary care doctor in a region already short on primary medical providers.

Andrews Mayor James Reid who was at ribbon cutting said access to quality health care in Cherokee County is important.  

“That’s why I’m so appreciative to [Erlanger] for bringing more things to Andrews, and more services for our people in Andrews because sometimes we feel like we are the forgotten few up here,” Reid said. “And it’s just so nice to have the quality of care that they are showing here in Andrews and just to be able to drive a mile down the road and have an urgent care through the weekend it's just a game changer.”

Mayor Reid said he was a patient of Clayton’s for more than two decades.

“Personally, I think he’s an outstanding man. I personally don’t have any waiver one way or the other on that. Just know him as my doctor, he’s always done a good job,” Reid said. “And I just wish him and his family the best moving forwards, I know he’s going to have some tough roads ahead of him. He’s in my prayers and all the victims are in my prayers. It’s all the way around, you’ve just got to pray for them all and just hope for the best outcome.”

Clayton is set to appear in court Monday in Cherokee county.

Serving community needs

Erlanger operates 10 locations for service in Cherokee County as well as a Hayesville clinic in Clay County and a clinic in at Robbinsville Elementary School in Graham County.

Here’s the full list of locations outside Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital: Erlanger Fit Plus, Cardiopulmonary Rehab, Erlanger Primary Care - Peachtree, Erlanger Cardiology, Erlanger Primary Care – Murphy, Erlanger Wound Care Center, Erlanger Primary Care – Andrews, Erlanger Express Care – Andrews, Erlanger Urology, Erlanger Orthopedics, Erlanger General Surgery, Erlanger Primary Care and Express Care – Hayesville, Erlanger Graham County School Clinic

“We service a very large region in which we might we see patients from Graham County, Robbinsville, Andrews – sometimes its an hour drive for them to get healthcare so this is going to help them get in a lot quicker, have closer access to care,” Phillips said.

The community need is great, said Teresa Bowleg, administrator and Associate Chief Nursing Officer for Erlanger Western Carolina.

“I know our Hayesville office, and our Murphy office for urgent and express care – they’re full all the time so this is going to help citizens of this community as well as overflow can come on in over here,” Bowleg said. She was previously the Chief Nursing Officer at Erlanger Western Carolina Hospital.

An Erlanger spokesperson reported 31 patients in the first weekend of extended hours - more than double the expected number for the new hours.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.