‘Dollar Doc’ hails back to days of country doctors

Rod Lee’s unassuming medical clinic offers low-cost, timely care to patients of all ages with or without insurance. (Photo/Nancy Hanson.)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

It’s the most unassuming medical center in town. No office towers surrounded by cars. No high-end décor. No buzz of bustling medical staff and clerical support, or packed waiting rooms, or exam rooms crowded with high-tech equipment.

The Dollar Clinic on First Avenue North in Moorhead has one doctor – Rod Lee, M.D. He unlocks the door in the morning. He answers the phone. He shows patients into his one exam room, often within seconds of their arrival. He diagnoses their illness, takes X-rays, applies splints to broken bones, prescribes drugs to cure infections, and often counts the pills out himself from the box of common medicines he keeps on hand.

What happens here resembles nothing so much as the hard-working country doctor tending to his ailing neighbors in days gone by.

Lee’s path to his unconventional practice began with a degree in pharmacy from North Dakota State University. He went on to earn a medical degree from the University of Minnesota School of medicine, then completed a family practice residency through the University of North Dakota. Finally he went to work in the Dakota Heartland network, an affiliation that he ended when the hospital was bought by MeritCare in 2002. He went out on his own, establishing the first walk-in clinics in Fargo-Moorhead under the name RapidCare.

His urgent care clinics – the first in the area – were based on many of the same principles he still holds today, including much lower cost, a minimum of tests (he says, “A lot of them are unnecessary”) and common prescriptions provided to patients at cost. By 2008, RapidCare’s five clinics had 50 employees serving 40,000 patients.

But his plans ran into the wall with complaints launched, he says, by his big corporate competitors. The main charge was inappropriate handling of pain medicine. In an interview with the Extra in 2018, he attributed his problems to “complex medico-political factors.” His North Dakota medical license was revoked, and the clinics closed. He spent most of the following years on a medical mission to Thailand, returning here five years ago.

Today’s Dollar Clinic is a far less ambitious center for healing than his previous enterprise. He opened it in September 2019 on the site of a former service station, dividing his time between 96 hours a week as an emergency room doctor in Benson, Minnesota, and three 12-hour days here in Moorhead; a second doctor covered the local clinic while he was gone.

But Covid-19 crushed the budding practice. “After March 2020, nothing was moving here except the trains across the street,” he says. He closed the new clinic for six months, then reopened last fall as a one-man operation.

That means the high-energy 63-year-old is on duty from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. He maintains no distance even in his time off; he moved his wife and two children, 5 and 1, from Benson to an apartment adjoining his clinic. When callers need help, he’s been known to open his doors even earlier or later to help them.

The uninsured are welcome here. Lee does accept insurance, he says, but his patients rarely use it, with charges so low that they beat the deductible on most policies. His usual fee is $50 for an office visit or $30 over the telephone. He charges rock-bottom prices, too, for x-rays in his office and the prescriptions he dispenses at cost.

Most clients have common maladies, he says, like bladder infections or sinus problems. “We can handle most everything, from A to Z,” he contends. Lee handles anything and everything that is not immediately life-threatening except PTSD and chronic pain. He adds, however, that when a patient needs specialty care, he arranges referrals wherever and to whomever best suits their situation. “If they need a surgeon, I call one,” he explains. “Whatever needs to be done, I consult a specialist – and I do it right now.”

Two of Lee’s services have attracted special attention. One is sports physicals, which he can perform with short notice. “We see a lot of kids who’ve forgotten to tell their parents until the night before,” he says with a smile. His fee, $25, is a fraction of what other clinics charge.

The other is physicals that are required for long-haul truckers to renew their commercial drivers licenses. Word has gotten around about his $40 exams – again, a fraction of the going rate elsewhere. His ample office hours also suit professional drivers whose travels make keeping a regular office appointment nearly impossible.

Lee’s patients mostly find him through referrals from friends already familiar with this most unconventional physician. He notes, though, that many now find him online thanks to Google. “I hear I have five-star reviews there,” he says with a touch of wonderment. “I didn’t even know doctors got reviews.

“They come to me because they’re tired of nobody listening to them. I don’t like the way the rest of the medical profession operates, and they don’t like it, either.

“You don’t need to come to some giant building with hundreds of cars in front and take an elevator from one place to another, wait for hours and pay a huge amount of money. I can do anything their doctors can do … quickly, cheaply and expertly.”

To find out more about Dr. Lee’s Dollar Clinic and its services, call 701-630-9536.

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