Patients and Doctors Discuss Free Health Clinics in Amherst

Benny Johnson has nagging injuries to his spinal cord and shoulder, products of a lifetime spent in the construction industry. Without daily medicine the pain is unbearable, something Johnson was reminded of several months ago after temporarily losing health insurance, and thus his medication.

Thanks to the Amherst Survival Center, Johnson, 63, was not in pain for long. The Center’s free health clinic recently received a $54,000 grant from the Attorney General’s office to provide medication for the uninsured and underinsured.

Johnson has insurance again, but said he will always remain grateful for the free care he received at the Survival Center.

“I would have been suffering without the clinic,” Johnson said. “No place to go, no insurance, no nothing.”

The Survival Center started its free health clinic about two years ago, fortunate timing as the recession decreased health care accessibility in Amherst and across the country. Dr. Susan Lowery, one of the two doctors who run the clinic, said she started treating more patients who lost their insurance and others who couldn’t afford higher co-pays for doctor visits and medication.

“If you have three kids who are sick, and your co-pay is $25, it will be $75 to find out if they have strep throat, or whether it’s a viral thing they just need to ride out, or if it’s something they need antibiotics for,” she said. “That’s beyond the reach of a lot of people with young children… Here they can go and not have to worry about the money.”

Lisa White, a nurse who helps run another free health clinic in the Amherst Senior Center, said the clinic has also been busier since the recession -- a total of 800 visits last year by 70 individuals.

“I can say that I have seen new clients … and that money is an issue for them. In the instances of people that I know their pensions have been deeply cut by the economic crisis, so there are decisions people need to make about what we can afford and can’t afford, and sometimes health care takes less of a priority than other needs, like food and shelter.”

White said people are now more wary of higher co-pays to visit the doctor’s office, inducing them to visit the clinic.

“I get more people who are interested in finding out, ‘Is this something my primary care physician should take a look at? Is this something that needs more immediate assistance?’”

The Senior Center clinic provides this care thanks to an Amherst couple that has donated $10,000 annually to the clinic since its inception a decade ago, comprising a majority of its budget.

The increase in patients at Amherst clinics is less than the nationwide trend. Last year, 8 million people used one of the country’s 1,200 free clinics, double the number of patients seen in years before the recession, according to the National Association of Free Clinics.

The NAFC responded to this increase by hosting several temporary clinics in cities across the country to highlight pressure facing free clinics nationwide, and the need for healthcare reform. One-day clinics in Houston, New Orleans and Little Rock each attracted over 1,000 people, while a two-day clinic in Kansas City attracted over 2,300 people.

News reports paint a grim profile of the patients visiting the clinics. Almost 70 percent of the patients at New Orleans had not seen a doctor in a year, and 31 percent said they do not see a doctor when they are sick. About 40 percent of the patients at the Kansas City clinic hadn’t seen a doctor in five years, and 20 percent hadn’t seen one in a decade or longer.

Dr. Daniel Clapp, another doctor who runs the Survival Center clinic, said he also treats many patients who hadn’t visited a doctor in years.

“People who come commonly consider themselves outside the mainstream of medical care,” Clapp said. “They don’t feel comfortable perhaps in a regular doctor’s office.”

Unfortunately 1,200 free clinics cannot adequately cover the 48 million uninsured people in the U.S., resulting in serious economic and health consequences. The uninsured pay more than one-third of their care out-of-pocket, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Lowery emphasized the importance of providing routine care to prevent minor ailments from turning into serious ones, thus avoiding costly hospital stays.

“Say you have a urine infection. If you don’t get that treated it can go up into your kidney, and then you’re really sometimes too sick for outpatient treatment, and you need to go to the hospital and get IV antibiotics,” Lowery said.

Such routine care is essential for Margarita Johnson, a Northampton resident who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. She said the Survival Center clinic helped her get a special cane and medication while Lowery provides needed support.

“The doctors at the Survival Center make you feel at home,” she said. Lowery is also helping Johnson find a suitable primary care doctor, as several recent insurance plans and doctors have been inadequate, which made Johnson visit the Survival Center clinic in the first place.

The Survival Center clinic also helps the unemployed re-enter the workforce by providing pre-employment physicals.

“Many employers require that you have a check up… and almost no insurer will pay for that,” Lowery said. “If you go to a private office, it could be a couple hundred dollars that people out of work just don’t have.”

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