February 13, 2007

Clinic Aids Uninsured

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For many, adequate health insurance is a growing concern. In response to this concern and the expense of medical services, there is a growing trend of free health clinics that provide care to the uninsured. One such clinic in Ithaca just celebrated its one-year anniversary last month.

During its first year of operation, the Ithaca Free Clinic estimated that approximately 200 patients would take advantage of their services, according to Beth Harrington, chair of the Ithaca Free Clinic Operations Steering Committee.

“In 2006, which was basically the first year we were open, we had 861 patient visits,” she said. “We’re kind of above and beyond where we expected to be.”

Harrington noted that there are approximately 10,000 uninsured people in Tompkins County, and the clinic reached nearly 10 percent of those people.

At least some of these patients turn to the clinic as their primary source of medical care.

Bethany Schroeder ’78, president of the Ithaca Health Alliance, the organization that founded the clinic, said, “[The Ithaca Health Alliance was] founded about 10 years ago, and getting a free clinic was always one of our hopes.”

“We have nurses, nurse practitioners, MDs, chiropractors, herbalists, acupuncturists, massage therapists, reiki and, soon, dieticians, who [all] provide services for the clientele that come looking for health care here at our clinic,” said Rob Brown-Llwyd ’96, office manager of the Ithaca Health Alliance and the interim Free Clinic coordinator. “All of our health care providers are volunteers.”

The combination of traditional and alternative medicine makes the Ithaca Free Clinic a “pioneer among free health clinics in the U.S.,” Brown-Llwyd said.

“What we are doing is trying to combine the complementary as well as the Western approaches so that everyone has the option of experiencing that, and it’s not just for people who can pay for it,” Schroeder said. “There is no cost to anything we do at the clinic.”

Schroeder compared the clinic to a convenient care center, “except we don’t actually do the lab and run the x-rays there, we have to refer those procedures out when they’re necessary.”

A new service of the clinic is a monthly pediatric clinic, which has been successful thus far, according to Schroeder. Over 75 volunteers work with the organization, and no appointments are needed. The clinic is open on Mondays and Thursdays and patients can simply walk in.

“In the world of free clinics, this is actually growing pretty fast,” Schroeder said. “You want to make sure you have enough volunteers to fulfill the services you promise. You really want to be able to fulfill it because that’s really the only measure of success in the beginning. The Ithaca Health Alliance has made a real history of keeping its word.”

Volunteers are constantly being recruited to help the clinic maintain and expand its services. Many volunteers are recruited by word of mouth, and there are many student volunteers from Cornell University, Ithaca College and Tompkins County Community College, Schroeder said. All of the volunteers are necessary to help accommodate the patients who visit the clinic.

“We very rarely have to turn people away, but it does happen sometimes, and when you have a couple of days like that in a month, you want to take a look at if there’s a possibility of [expanding hours],” Schroeder said. However, having so many patients is also an indicator that the clinic is open during hours which are convenient for patients.

During its first year, the Ithaca Free Clinic operated with funds that had been saved by the Ithaca Health Alliance, Brown-Llwyd said. Since then, however, the organization has used a variety of fund raising and grants in order to run the clinic.

“This year, one of the provisions of one of the grants that we got requires that we open up a third day. We’re hoping to do that by the end of the first quarter of this year,” Schroeder said. “We have access to a wonderful grant writing team, all of who are volunteers.”

The clinic received a $48,000 grant from the New York State Health Foundation. According to Harrington, there were about 600 applicants for the grant, and the Ithaca Health Clinic was one of 23 organizations chosen. The grant will be used for activities such as expanding the clinic’s hours, hiring an outreach coordinator to recruit volunteers, increasing the specialty care offered and increasing the knowledge of the clinic’s volunteers in determining patients’ eligibility for state health insurance.

Additional funds have also been donated by the community at a variety of fund raisers, Harrington said.

The clinic also has ambitious plans for the future.

“We would certainly like to have more volunteer providers on hand and available to fill our shifts,” Brown-Llwyd said. “We hope to expand into free dental services, which is one of the dreams we’ve had all along. We’re just not there yet.”

Schroeder said that before dental care can be offered, they must first purchase the equipment, secure additional space, and recruit several dentists as volunteers.

“Our longer term goal would be to eventually find a bigger space and, if it’s possible, to make that space something we actually own, but that’s really a dream,” Schroeder said, citing expenses as the biggest obstacle. “It’s not easy to find a bigger space that’s affordable.”

“I expect that we’ll be here for quite some while,” Brown-Llwyd said. “I don’t expect the health care situation to change so much that we’re no longer needed.”