PEORIA — No one was more surprised than Joyce Harmon when UnityPoint Health offered to buy the business she’s been running on a shoestring for the last 35 years.
“I’m dumbfounded. They are not going to make much money, that’s for sure,” she said while sitting in her tiny office, a single room in an modest office building across War Memorial Drive from Peoria Stadium.
Harmon founded Harmon Medical Labs Services in 1984 because she thought medical costs were outrageous. She draws blood and prepares it for testing at a reference lab — today she uses the lab in UnityPoint Health-Methodist Hospital.
“I wanted to help the poor,” said Harmon, 86. “I thought the cost of medicine was way too high and I needed to do something about it.”
Harmon’s prices are so low most people don’t mind that she doesn’t accept insurance.
“I did labs for a lady the other day, $35 for two tests, and she told me she had the same work done elsewhere for $401,” said Harmon. “I hear stories like this all the time. And people say ‘oh my God, why hasn’t anyone told me about you before?’”
Harmon shrugs her shoulders — she doesn’t know why she isn’t busier. On a typical day she has about 15 customers.
“They should be lining up all the way out to War Memorial,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are either uninsured or have a very high deductible.”
A farmer’s wife who decided to go back and get a degree in 1975 after raising seven children, Harmon worked for a doctor in Elmwood for about eight years before opening Harmon Labs. The business has always been low-tech — Harmon never did join the computer age. She types receipts on an electric typewriter, and though she has a fax machine, she prefers driving to the lab to pick up test results every morning before heading to work. Her office is utilitarian, with a centrifuge beneath her desk and an antique exam table along one wall. The table was a gift from her former employer who had it stored in his office basement.
“I use it a lot, about once a week,” said Harmon. “Anyone who comes in here and says, ‘I’m not a very good stick, I get lightheaded,’ I lay them down on the table.”
Harmon has two passions — helping people save money money on medical tests and helping the poor. Using income from both the lab and the farm, Harmon gives generously to a variety of charities every year. A bulletin board in her office showcases some of the things accomplished with her donations.
“I gave money to help build a school in Uganda, and I gave enough to build an entire small school in India,” said Harmon. “I bought a truck in Haiti, and I helped dig lots of wells because water is a big issue there. And I built a lot of houses for individual families.”
Harmon has been to Haiti seven times, but her altruism started before that.
“I went to Catholic schools — maybe it was the nuns,” she said. “I don’t need much. Spending money doesn’t thrill me. I’d rather help some people who need it.”
Harmon went from working seven mornings a week to three when she turned 81. She's retiring because the bookkeeper she rents her office from decided to leave.
“When she told me that, I thought, 'I’ll just quit,'" said Harmon. "Then I got two or three calls, one from Methodist Hospital saying they wanted to buy my business. I said, ‘Well, you got to keep the prices down.’”
An agreement was reached — prices will remain the same for the first year and not rise more than 5% over the next five years, said Harmon.
“I’ve been told that they think I’ve done a great thing for the community, and they’d like to see that continue,” said Harmon.
Dana Spears, regional laboratory director for UnityPoint Health, said they are finalizing the details of the business transfer and will soon be offering the service to the community.
“We are looking forward to partnering with Harmon Labs as an addition to Junction Medical,” she said in a prepared statement.
The lab will be moved to a room in UnityPoint Health — Junction Medical in Junction City Shopping Center, said Harmon. It’s a nice fit since Junction Medical also doesn’t accept insurance, operating instead under a direct primary care model where patients pay a monthly fee for unlimited office visits and some basic tests.
Harmon will spend a few weeks helping UnityPoint set up the business before she retires. Then she plans to go on an extended vacation.
“I have a little six-speed Honda out there that I just love. First, I’m gonna clean house, in case something happens there won’t be a big mess for my kids to clean up, and then I’m gonna get in that Honda and see all the national forests. ... My son said, ‘Mom, take the train.’”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.