Charity Clinic Model Should Be Part of Health Reform

By Ross Mason

At charity clinics throughout Georgia, patients with no health insurance or who don’t qualify for government programs jam telephone lines to obtain an appointment. If the clinic doesn’t take appointments, patients line up at the doors and wait for hours for a chance to see a doctor, nurse or dentist.

In 2008, Georgia’s 100-plus charity clinics cared for more than 175,000 patients. This year, some clinics are seeing as much as a 300 percent increase in patients due to the state’s record unemployment rate. Still, many get turned away.

Community-based clinics use volunteers to provide care and charge little to nothing for patients who have no other means of accessing health care. Georgia’s charity clinics provide between $200 million and $400 million annually in uncompensated care, according to a 2005 state auditor’s report. That amount will likely be even greater this year because of the rising number of unemployed.

The federal government needs to recognize the savings to taxpayers resulting from the important and mostly invisible role these clinics play in the American health care delivery system. In 2008, the nation’s 1,200 charity clinics served 4 million patients. That’s 4 million patients, often without the ability to pay, who didn’t use government programs for their health care. These facts should prompt President Obama to give charity clinics a seat at the table to help devise a health care strategy for the 21st Century.

During the 2008 campaign, President Obama highlighted the importance of making preventive medicine more accessible. At charity clinics, there is a significant focus on prevention, especially with diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Clinics help patients find low-cost generic pharmaceuticals and apply for drug discount cards. Providing this access to affordable medication keeps patients from developing more serious conditions that are far more costly and difficult to treat.

There are many other reasons to support the role of charity clinics:

  • The Congressional Budget Office last month reported that 36 million Americans would still remain uninsured even if the Senate’s $1.6 trillion health care proposal passed. Charitable clinics will take care of many of the remaining uninsured patients.
  • According to the National Center for Policy Analysis, the uninsured receive almost $1,500 in health care annually, much of which is delivered at charity clinics.
  • Clinics focus on delivering care without getting entangled in government bureaucracy. Charity clinics are sponsored by the private sector, such as churches, medical societies, civic organizations and other community groups.
  • Hospitals throughout the country are turning away patients without life-threatening emergencies. Large hospitals, in particular, report overcrowding and long waits in their emergency rooms, forcing them to divert patients. Charitable clinics are a more viable option for non-emergency care because they provide patients a home for ongoing primary care.

As one of his first initiatives, the president called for more citizens to participation in community service through the national service corps. Volunteering at a local clinic is a wonderful way for citizens to enhance their communities.

The federal government can support charity clinics by encouraging educational partnerships with medical training facilities, offering block grants to cover administrative costs, creating incentives for drug companies to donate pharmaceuticals and broadening medical malpractice protection for physicians and other volunteer providers.

As the nation’s unemployment rate approaches double digits, the uninsured problem is going to become more critical. In many cases, charitable clinics will be the only solution for Americans who have lost their health insurance and can’t afford COBRA or another temporary health policy. These newly uninsured often cannot access government programs and depend upon the care of physicians willing to donate their time at charity clinics.

Until we find solutions to get more Americans covered by health insurance, the federal government needs to encourage charity clinics run by the private sector and staffed by physicians, nurses, dentists and other concerned citizens who donate their time and expertise. Charitable clinics are a cost-effective solution that fits into our new President’s challenge to return to a spirit of giving.

Ross Mason is president of the board of directors of the Georgia Free Clinic Network and a Senior Fellow at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes practical, market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

 © Georgia Public Policy Foundation (July 17, 2009). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.