Monday, December 13, 2010

My Day at a Free Clinic: The Truth Behind the Rhetoric

I just got back from a most remarkable experience: volunteering at a free clinic in Charlotte, NC.

Like many of you, each day I read my Daily Digest to be aware of the health care news of the day. The political rhetoric about the work ethic of the unemployed has been awfully harsh lately. Opinions about health policy and the tug of war between the two political parties that appear on the editorial pages of our nation’s newspapers seem very disconnected from the reality on the streets and country roads of the United States.

I had the opportunity to hear the stories of hard-working and proud Americans who have lost their jobs, and with the jobs, their health insurance. It’s these stories that make the policy issues come alive, and drive home the absolute necessity for clinicians to help create a system that is worthy and respectful of the character of these Americans.

Mary, 60, is a well-educated woman whose COBRA coverage expired two months ago. She lost her job as a loan evaluation specialist at a bank 20 months ago. She paid the full cost of coverage for her health insurance under COBRA because she knew the consequences if she developed a serious illness, and couldn’t pay for the costs of care.

With hypertension and thyroid disease, she’s familiar with generic drugs that keep her costs down. She’s not sure what she’ll do to cover the years until Medicare coverage becomes available, because she’s caring for her 87-year-old mother, and helping her son who moved back home when he lost his job. She’s also back in school re-training as a health care billing specialist, because even “dumbing down” her resume to not appear overqualified for many jobs hasn’t helped her land any interviews. She takes care of herself, and relies on her faith that she will make it through her difficult situation.

Susan, 45, is a wife and mother of two elementary school children who stayed behind in New York to continue working at her job when her husband got a new job in North Carolina. Though living apart as a family was difficult, as an accountant she knew it was necessary to get through the recession. She was the first to lose her job. A few months after moving to NC, her husband’s job disappeared. Neither has been successful in finding new work. She told me her children have health care coverage, and that her kids have been very supportive of her as a good mom, even though times are tough for the family.

Those were just two of the nearly 1,200 people who showed up for the free clinic. Not only was I privileged to be part of their lives for a few minutes, but it was an opportunity to work as a team with nurses, other physicians, and volunteers to help others in this season of hope and goodwill. The young physician (six months out of internal medicine residency) working in the cubicle next to me was my lifeline to high quality, current medical thinking. She thought my years of experience were equally as important. We made a good team yesterday. Thank you, Nicole.

Finally, on behalf of other ACPE members who served as volunteers yesterday, we thank Ed Weisbart, one of your ACPE colleagues who is a leader for the National Association of Free Clinics, for letting us know of this opportunity. Included with Ed in making this happen is our own Charisse Jimenez, who helped us get the word out.

Interested in volunteering or making a donation? Visit the National Association of Free Clinics to learn more. In addition to practicing physicians of all specialties, residents and medical students are welcomed to volunteer. The NAFC also needs mid-level practitioners, nurses and everyone else who can help, clinically or nonclinically.