Free clinics are priceless

  • Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2013 12:58 a.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, February 10, 2013 1:53 p.m.

They’d like to go out of business, if only the need would disappear. But even once the Affordable Care Act is in full force, free health clinics for the poor expect they’ll still see a steady stream of patients.

Organizations like the Community Care Clinic of Rowan County at 315 G Mocksville Ave., Good Shepherd’s Clinic at 220 N. Fulton St. and others serve a segment of the population that has surged in recent years, the uninsured. The clinics need as much support as the community can give them to keep up with need in the area of medical care, dental care and prescription drugs.

North Carolina’s population growth stays on an upward trend, but the uninsured population under the age of 65 has grown more than twice as fast in recent years, due to the recession. One in five Rowan adults between the ages of 19 and 64 lacks health insurance, according to the N.C. Institute of Medicine. They could be unemployed or underemployed, or their jobs may not offer the benefit. Or they may just do without.

What about the safety net of Medicaid? Doesn’t it help the poor get health care? Not all. Medicaid helps the disabled, children, pregnant women and people under other extenuating circumstances who meet income guidelines.

So people turn to the growing number of free clinics. The N.C. Association of Free Clinics says it has 79 member clinics, more than any other state in the country. Each is a private, nonprofit, community-based organization that provides medical care at little or no charge to low-income people. They do so with volunteer doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists and more, and through partnerships with other health providers — and with donations from the community.

The Community Care Clinic has seen exponential growth over the past five years and in the course has learned how to stretch a dollar. In 2013, director Krista Woolly says, the clinic will be able to provide $8 in medical and dental care for every $1 donated. But they still need that dollar. The clinic receives no government funding. It works with pharmaceutical companies to get donated drugs to fill more than 20,000 prescriptions a year. And its force of 70 volunteers — from physicians to office workers — handled 2,795 patient visits last year, up 20 percent from the year before. Dental visits numbered 889, a 15 percent increase.

North Carolina has 9.2 primary care physicians per 10,000 residents, Woolly says, but Rowan has only 5.8 per 10,000. So when people talk about expanding Medicaid, she says, “I’m not sure who is going to see these folks.”

Until then, and maybe beyond, free clinics will fill a crucial gap in the health care system.

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