July 21, 2009

Free Clinics See Rise In Patients Despite Decline In Funding

In a world faced with a declining economy and a high unemployment rate, there is comfort in free clinics for those who have no other options.

About 4 million Americans will visit the country's 1,200 free health clinics in 2009, a large number that contradicts the clinics drop-off in financial backing.

"Over the last year, free clinics have seen patient load increase by 40 to 50 percent," said Nicole D. Lamoureux, executive director of the National Association of Free Clinics, to Associated Press. "People who just last year had health coverage are now out of work and need to have their health care needs met."

Companies like the CIGNA Foundation, which financially backs clinics in Philadelphia and Connecticut, note that they have less money to spend on clinics even though requests have increased by 50% in the last year.

"Our spending is down by 15-20 percent since last year," spokeswoman Gloria Verrone said. "We've decided not to eliminate working with organizations that need our help, but we have had to decrease funding amounts in order to keep those relationships. We also haven't been able to accept any new groups this year but we're hopeful to start doing so again by next year."

In Connecticut, AmeriCares, a nonprofit group, runs three clinics in Danbury, Bridgeport and Norwalk. Patient visits have increased 20% at the clinics so far this year, said Karen Gottlieb, executive director of AmeriCares Free Clinics.

The Danbury clinic has 350 visits a month. Danbury had 3,000 patients in 2008, Norwalk had 2,700 and Bridgeport had 1,600.

Gottlieb anticipates that the patient volume from all three clinics could hit 8,000 by the end of 2009. The clinics offer physicals, lab and diagnostic work and cardiology and diabetes tests, all completely free.

When patients need healing beyond what the clinics can offer, they are sent to a local hospital for free care at the hospital's expense.

"The point of the clinics is to provide health care to people who fall through the cracks," she said. "People who have Medicaid and are uninsured have the ability to go to federally funded community health centers, but they charge on a sliding scale. So we take the patients who don't have the money to pay."

The clinics are usually given $17,000 annually from the cities where the clinics operate, but are funded mainly from donations from private foundations, corporations and local church and civic groups.

Gottlieb admits that not everything is going very well.

"We're busier than ever at a time when donations are down," she said. "People are not giving what they used to give."

Services given by the clinics can save lives, patients insist. Clarke Barre, 62, originally did not want to go to a free clinic; he never thought that he would require their services.

"I am currently an uninsured person who has always been employed and always been insured, but recent events have changed that," he said.

Without insurance, Barre looked free clinics and eventually went to the Danbury clinic to get a few routine tests.

Blood tests conducted by the free clinic revealed that he had prostate cancer.

Barre insisted he would not have been able to afford the treatments without the help.

"I haven't had to pay a nickel," he said. "My understanding is that we are in the tens of thousands at this point. I might not be alive if it wasn't for clinics such as these."


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