Columbus Free Medical Clinics Track Health Care Changes

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Line forms during mid-afternoon on Mondays for Physicians Care Connection Free clinic at Columbus Department of Health(Photo: Tom Borgerding/WOSU)
Line forms during mid-afternoon on Mondays for Physicians Care Connection Free clinic at Columbus Department of Health(Photo: Tom Borgerding/WOSU)

The new federal  health care law is designed to provide universal health care coverage beginning in 2014. So, operators of free medical clinics, who serve people who currently lack health insurance, are bracing for change.

By mid-afternoon on most Mondays, a crowd lines up on the second floor of theColumbus Health Department to see volunteer nurses and doctors at one of Columbus’ free medical clinics. Columbus Public health donates space. Nurses, doctors and their staff donate time and expertise.

Brenda Tucker of Columbus is currently jobless and uninsured. She is one of about 100 individuals waiting in line, more than an hour before the clinic opens. She calls the clinic a medical lifeline.

“I’m a diabetic and I feel like if they are going to help me or give me a prescription or send me to  some doctor where I can get on the right track. That’d be nice.” Says Tucker.

Near the back of the line, Tanya Lee wishes she had arrived earlier.

“If you  ain’t got no insurance, its good. I don’t have no insurance. I’m sick, I’m sick right now so I came to the free clinic. I don’t feel very good at all.” Says Lee.

The Physicians Care Connection clinic is one of ten free clinics in Columbus. They mainly serve Franklin County’s estimated 140,000 residents who lack health insurance.  But as more people gain access to health coverage and the number of uninsured declines  the head of the clinic,  Isi Ikharebha,  says the business model for free clinics will have to change.

“The one thing that won’t happen is that we won’t go away.”

In 2011,  the Physicians Care Clinic operated on a one-million dollar budget cobbled together from private foundations, Franklin County commissioners  and other donations. But, Ikharebha cites federal studies which indicate the clinic’s main clientele, the uninsured, will shrink by about half during the next five years.

“With very rough numbers that still means that about 75-thousand adults in Franklin County will be uninsured.” Ikharebha says. “And so for those individuals, the health care safety net, the free clinics, the community health centers, we’ll still be their source of health care.”

Ikharebha says free clinics have already begun to change. Instead of limiting clients to one visit, the Physicians Care Connection has taken on an expanded role. It now gives referrals to federally approved community health centers where clients can get both primary and specialty medical care. Ikharebha says the changes will help free medical clinics survive and adapt in a changing health care enviornment.

“But I know that there are many things still caught up in congress and we’re all still trying to figure it out as we go.”

Back in line, Tonya Lee waits for hours to see a physician….she too is trying to figure out where she’ll get access to health care in the future.

Borg: “If this wasn’t here, what would you do?  (Lee) “I’d go to the hospital and get a bill. This way you don’t get a bill. That goes on your credit when you go to the hospital.”