While Congress spars over the fate of health reform, the fact remains that 59 million Americans have no health insurance, aren't old enough for Medicare, and earn too much to get other government assistance — but rarely enough to pay cash for the care they need.
Many uninsured people can only hope their health holds out. If it doesn't, they wait until it's bad enough to go an emergency room, which by law can't turn them away. It's a costly — and, one might argue, inhumane — way to care for people, but it's what we have.
Since 1970, the St. Petersburg Free Clinic has been helping people with few other options find medical care, food, shelter, clothing or transportation. Its health center — which strives to help people before they must seek emergency care — had 6,400 patient visits last year and is seeing even more this year.
The clinic operates on grants and donations, including volunteers, equipment and supplies from St. Anthony's Hospital, Bayfront Medical Center and HCA hospitals. It has a tiny paid staff aided by an army of volunteer doctors, nurses and other community members.
I recently toured the clinic, and I wasn't surprised to hear that demand for its services have gone up in these hard times. I also learned some details I found interesting, and thought you might too.
• A lot of people turn to the Free Clinic because they just lost their jobs. Up to 25 percent of clients had been laid off in the previous 90 days, Ronda Russick, director of the health center, told me.
• Many clients are working, perhaps at multiple part-time jobs, but their employers don't offer insurance, and they make too much to qualify for Medicaid, the government health program for the poor. "They might be able to pay for a doctor visit on their own, but not for medication,'' said board member Sandra Averitt, who's also a nurse.
• Free Clinic clients — most are ages 40 to 60, and a bit over half are women — struggle with the same chronic conditions as other Americans. Hypertension, diabetes, cholesterol and respiratory problems such as asthma, roughly in that order, are the big four. But these days, "our patients have become much more complex, because they haven't had insurance, so they wait until it's really bad,'' Russick said.
• Many clients are eager to improve their health. About 30 to 50 people a week show up every Monday night for a diabetes class. With the education, free testing strips and blood testing, they can get the reinforcement they need to better manage their condition.
• There's a lot we all can do to help the Free Clinic. Cash donations, along with contributions of nutritious food, over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and personal care items, are always welcome.
• So is your time. Nurses and doctors, particularly specialists such as orthopedists and endocrinologists, are most needed. But there's plenty of work for those with less skill. I saw a little girl capably pushing a cart loaded with groceries, supervised by her proud mom.
• Perhaps you astonish your friends with your command of trivia. Then you might gather up a table of competitors for Battle of the Minds 2011, a fundraiser for the clinic March 12 at the Vinoy. I've never been, but a good friend who goes to just about every charitable function there is around here says she wouldn't miss this one for anything. You can find details at www.stpetersburgfreeclinic.org, or call (727) 821-1200.
• Above all, if you know somebody you think might need the Free Clinic, urge them to call at (727) 327-0333, or go to the website to learn more. Even people who can't get to the clinic, located in a former Post Office building at 863 Third Ave. N, can be referred to services in their area.
The Free Clinic serves a lot of people who aren't used to seeking help.
"This is not a handout,'' Averitt said. "It's an avenue to get help other than the ER. But people will wait to ask because of the element of pride.''
Or as Russick tells people who seem reticent: "You're just the type of person we're here to help.''