Last weekend in Columbia, the South Carolina Hospital Association, United Way and other organizations sponsored Mission 2011, a two-day free clinic for those in need of health care across our state.
Thousands of people waited in line for hours in the South Carolina heat to see doctors, dentists and ophthalmologists. Mission 2011 was able to provide treatment for approximately 2,000 uninsured and underinsured residents of our state. Last year’s inaugural event in Greenville saw about the same numbers. Unfortunately, even with the generous volunteer efforts of more than 1,000 providers, many patients were still turned away.
What does that tell us about the state of healthcare in South Carolina? As director of our state’s free clinic network, it confirms what my colleagues and I already know — for many good folks in our state, basic healthcare is unaffordable and out of reach.
Every day across the state we open our clinic doors to provide quality, comprehensive healthcare for those who have nowhere else to turn. Free clinics are independent, nonprofit organizations that are able to provide free care due to the generosity of healthcare providers who volunteer their time and talents to work at their local clinic. We rely on foundation funding, private donations and community support. We get free and discounted medications from pharmaceutical companies; donated space from community stakeholders; and free lab services from our local hospitals.
South Carolina’s free clinics have never received state or federal funding to operate. We do not get embroiled in the senseless politics of the healthcare reform debate because we know that, regardless of what new system evolves into, there will still be people who fall through the cracks and need our services. The majority of our patients are good, hardworking folks who pay their bills from limited incomes.
Our patient’s salaries are too high to qualify for Medicaid, but they cannot afford to take out as much as half their earnings to pay a health insurance premium. The fact is there are families in South Carolina who have to choose between paying rent or going to the doctor, putting food on the table or spending that money on medicine for a chronic illness. The lucky ones have connected with a free clinic in their community.
Others – like many who stood in the long lines at the Carolina Coliseum last weekend – ignore their health issues and therefore become less functional in society. Because they lack access to basic healthcare, routine problems become chronic or life threatening. These untreated South Carolina residents often find their way to a hospital emergency room, where it can cost approximately $1,600 for a non-emergent patient visit. The same patient visit at a free clinic costs the clinic and its donors less than $100, and it costs the patient nothing. How much of that $1,600, multiplied hundreds of times a day at hospitals across the state, would you as a consumer prefer to go toward a free clinic’s minimal costs? The South Carolina Free Clinic Association represents 48 free clinics across our state. By the end of 2011, that number will increase to at least 51 clinics. In communities where free clinics operate, low-income uninsured residents have a place to go for healthcare besides their local emergency room. Hospitals know that having a free clinic nearby greatly reduces non-emergent hospital usage and has a demonstrated positive impact on the local healthcare economy. More importantly, our patients are healthy. They receive comprehensive, quality healthcare and specialty referrals when needed. They participate in patient education programs that help them learn about and manage their diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic conditions.
All of these services are at no cost to the patients, and no cost to the taxpayers. It is a system that has been quietly and successfully taking care of our state’s uninsured population for many years. We have five clinics that have been treating patients for more than 25 years, one since 1965. We are able to do this through grassroots, community support. We don’t get distracted by political infighting because our work appeals to both sides of the party line – we take care of folks who need help without spending taxpayer dollars. We keep our focus on the community, both for whom we serve and from whom we rely for support.
So what can you do to help? You can find out more about free clinics in your area and become an advocate for their work. If you are a healthcare provider, consider giving of your time to help those in need in your community. You will never regret the time you give back to provide healthcare for someone who otherwise would go without. If you are looking for a good cause to support financially, there is no organization more worthy than your local free clinic. Because free clinics use volunteer providers and donated services, they make a huge impact with little funding. So, there are few places your dollar will stretch further or do more good.
The thousands of people who stood outside in the August heat last weekend for a chance to see a doctor represent our fellow South Carolinians who lack the means to make choices we might take for granted. These are the hard workers who take care of our children, serve our food, cut our hair, repair our cars and do a myriad of hourly and minimum wage jobs without benefits. They may sit behind us in church, or slow the line at the grocery store leafing through coupons. We need to think of them not as victims or freeloaders looking for a handout, but as our neighbors.
This is a special post from Amanda Berrier, executive director of the South Carolina Free Clinic Association. This also appeared in the Bluffton Today.