Unlike Medicaid, Charity Clinics Lead to Independence

This week marks the beginning of Pennsylvania’s transition from Healthy PA to full Medicaid expansion. Over 100,000 beneficiaries were transferred to the traditional one-size-fits-all healthcare plan known for limited access to doctors and skyrocketing taxpayer costs.

At the same time, however, Pennsylvania’s network of free healthcare clinics continue to tap the power of local communities to provide free, quality care and a pathway to independence for the truly needy.

Consider the story of Andrea, a 25 year old from Chester County who experienced severe tooth pain but did not have dental insurance. When Andrea came to the Community Volunteers In Medicine (CVIM) clinic in 2012, volunteer dentists had to extract her top front tooth—a devastating blow to young Andrea’s self-esteem.

But Andrea persisted, making all of her follow-up appointments and maintaining her oral health to the point that the CVIM dental team decided to surprise Andrea with the funds to restore her smile. Created in honor of a long-time volunteer, the Smiles for Jackie fund pays for services beyond those available at CVIM. When the dental team saw Andrea’s restored smile for the first time, they were brought to tears of joy. 

Recently Andrea has been able to increase her hours at work and is now eligible for comprehensive dental benefits.

On the other side of the state, Clemmie Johnson is receiving quality health care with a personal touch at the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center (CCFHCC) in Pittsburgh.

Clemmie was perpetually exhausted and sensed that things just weren’t right. The 63-year old widow had health insurance through her husband, but he died several years ago, and she could no longer afford the monthly premiums or her blood pressure medication. Eventually, she lost the family home.

When friends encouraged her to go to the clinic, Clemmie said her pride wouldn’t let her. “I thought people would judge me, so I stayed away.” When Clemmie finally went to the clinic she was surprised. Talking about Dr. Tom Antos, Clemmie explains, “I couldn’t think of a better match. He really listens. He hears even what I don’t say. He is very thorough.”

With the help of residents from Duquesne University, Clemmie was able to receive medications to treat her hypertension, diabetes, and asthma at little or no cost. She says, “They [the volunteers] work better than people who get paid!”

Andrea and Clemmie are just two of countless free clinic success stories. Paul didn’t have dental insurance and discovered a cancerous growth under his tongue thanks to a CCFHCC dentist. He says, “This was better than winning the lottery. He saved my life.” Than there’s Reyna (pictured above), a 36 year old with Down syndrome who came to CVIM with out-of-control type II diabetes. Thanks to innovative teaching techniques, she’s learning to better manage her disease.

Free clinics demonstrate the power of community to efficiently and compassionately care for those who can’t afford health insurance.

Unlike Medicaid, the giving is reciprocal. For instance, Andrea was so grateful for her new smile that she donated $500 to the Smiles for Jackie’ fund. And a CCFHCC patient donated a Bible for the patient waiting area.

Free clinics are an important element of the safety net that must be preserved despite any expansion of Medicaid. In fact, the flexibility and the personalization of services available at free clinics are often against the rules of the Medicaid system. Government should attempt to emulate, rather than replace, this critical form of care.