Free clinic seeing patients…for now

With the 2014 deadline to sign up for insurance under the Affordable Health Care Act looming and millions still scrambling to sign up, the future of various health services, from free clinics to for-profit hospitals, is still unclear.

Once the March 31 deadline to sign up passes, some millions of Americans previously without health insurance will be covered, and that number is expected to grow in the coming years.

The Washington County Free Clinic in Marietta provides free medical care to people between the ages of 19 to 64 who have no health insurance and an income that falls within 200 percent of Federal Poverty Guidelines.

“In the short term we’re just going to continue to serve people without insurance,” said Robin Bozian, director of the clinic. “We’re not going to abandon anyone. We already have had patients who at some point qualify for insurance or something changes, and we help them transition into that, so we’ll be doing the same thing for this.”

Health professionals say it’s really difficult to tell who might get left behind.

“Theoretically everyone should be covered and deserves to be covered, but that might not happen,” Bozian said. “There may be a niche of people we’ll need to serve.”

Bozian said the clinic is making people aware of health care deadlines with everything from educational clinics on the Affordable Health Care Act to mailed fliers.

“Over the next few months we’ll be doing a major re-assessing, of what our role is and what need is there,” she said.

While she said she can offer no clear prediction, she hopes that several years down the line, there will be no need for a clinic to serve uninsured clients and that the free clinic can close.

“We’ve served a tremendous need already,” Bozian said. “The best of all worlds would be that we’d helped everyone and we’re out of business.”

The Memorial Health System is also preparing for upcoming changes, but like those at the free clinic, administrators there are unsure about what is coming. Jennifer Offenberger, director of marketing and public relations for the Memorial Health System, said all anyone in the health care industry can do is prepare for all the possibilities.

“We have not seen a lot of changes yet, and until we’ve gotten to where everyone has signed up, we can’t get any numbers,” she said.

People who would never have been able to have long-term physicians before will now, so more access is the key factor in planning, according to Offenberger.

“We have put into effect a no-price increase for the year to keep those the same,” she said. “We’ve grown the ability for people to access.”

This growth comes from several sources, like the expansion of the system’s facilities. Memorial Health also started Care Connection Services, which connects new patients to interim physicians temporarily until they have a long-term one in place.

Meanwhile, the free clinic runs by appointment only and operates on the first and third Tuesday of every month. Once Affordable Health Care deadlines come, Bozian said she and her colleagues have to re-organize and figure out if they are still needed.

Marietta resident Ellen Caplinger began going to the clinic after a health condition caused her to lose her insurance in January 2011.

“With my income there was no way I could afford those procedures and to maintain my health care. It was a godsend when the clinic became available to Washington County,” she said.

The clinic does much of her necessary blood work and the high ticket prices of the prescriptions she needs are taken care of.

“It’s priceless to me. I would be knee-high in debt otherwise. It would be the choice between food in my stomach or medication in my body,” Caplinger said.

Because of her work schedule, Caplinger is unable to make appointments during the Tuesdays that the clinic is open, so she was set up with a local hospital as a outpatient to have appointments when needed. Like many Americans she is currently wading through the process of signing up for Affordable Care, but Caplinger said she remains grateful for the clinic and its volunteers, even though a time may come when she no longer needs the help.

“With the economy, everyone is always going to need assistance, and I just really appreciate it,” Caplinger said.

Amber Peck, a government health care navigator employed by Washington-Morgan Community Action to help people through the process of signing up for government health care, said a lot of local people have come in for help.

“We’ve seen a pretty consistent amount of people coming in looking for assistance,” she said. “We probably help an average of about 10 to 12 people per week to apply or with questions.”

Not signing up by the March 31 deadline can lead to a tax penalty in 2015.