Group wants to start clinic for working uninsured

//June 4, 2009

Group wants to start clinic for working uninsured

//June 4, 2009

Getting sick these days can be expensive — even if you have a job.

With this in mind, a coalition of community leaders hopes to open a free health clinic for the working uninsured and underinsured in Lebanon County this year.

 “The need for this kind of facility for the working population is going to continue to grow,” said Frank Dixon, a Lebanon philanthropist who is backing the effort to bring a Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) clinic in the city. 

Based in Burlington, Vt., the nonprofit VIM has eight clinics in Pennsylvania — none of them in the midstate — and more than 70 nationwide. Part of VIM’s credo is to serve only working populations.

“This was a very successful model and there’s no need for us to start from scratch, to reinvent the wheel if it’s already being implemented so well,” said Bob Phillips, chairman of the organizing committee for the clinic.

A standing room-only crowd packed an informational meeting about the clinic Tuesday in Lebanon. Many of the attendees were local medical professionals interested in donating their time to the clinic.

The effort began in response to the statistic that roughly 9,800 county residents are uninsured, which was included in the United Way of Lebanon County’s 2005 community needs assessment, Phillips said.

That number likely has grown since 2005 as the population increased and the economy plummeted, said Emily Guilliams, director of development and communications for the United Way of Lebanon County. The nonprofit is in the process of compiling a new needs assessment.

The United Way doesn’t track how many uninsured individuals are holding down jobs, but the number of working uninsured and underinsured probably has increased as well, she said.

That’s partially because the poor economy has accelerated the trend of businesses filling open positions with temporary or part-time workers, if they’re hiring at all, Guilliams said. Part-time and temporary workers typically are not eligible for employer-provided health insurance.

Lebanon’s many small and mid-size businesses also are finding it increasingly difficult to afford health insurance for their workers, she said.

“It’s definitely not the employers’ fault; it’s just the economy is back-breaking on businesses trying to insure employees,” she said.

Another target audience for the clinic is college students who might have scaled back work and lost benefits so they have time to attend school, said Julie Miksit, the clinic’s interim executive director and the assistant director for cardiovascular services at Good Samaritan Health System.

The situation puts a strain on residents’ health and on local hospital emergency rooms because people postpone primary and preventative care until the need is urgent, Phillips said.

It’s also a drain on hospitals’ finances, Guilliams said.

“Hospitals write off so much in uncollectible (debt) that if that goes down, that ultimately would have an effect not only in the hospital, but also in how much everyone is paying for (health care),” she said.

The clinic would be in a former Good Samaritan Health System radiology clinic at 711 S. Eighth St. and have six exam rooms and two dental chairs. The committee also plans to turn the basement into a conference room to hold programs such as a smoking-cessation clinic.

To be eligible to receive service, people would need to show proof of employment, live in Lebanon County, be between 18 and 64 years old and not be eligible for government assistance programs such as Medicare, Medicaid or veterans’ benefits.

A family or individual also could earn no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty level: $21,660 per year for an individual or $44,100 for a family of four.

The clinic would be open by appointment only and staffed by volunteer retired and active medical and clerical professionals in addition to two paid administrative positions.

The clinic would need 200 to 300 volunteers to operate, Phillips estimated. Depending on volunteers, the clinic might schedule days when a particular specialist, such as a cardiologist or chiropractor, is available. Good Samaritan also would process lab and radiology tests from the clinic free of charge, Miksit said.

Based on the expenses of other VIM clinics, the Lebanon VIM would cost between $500,000 and $700,000 per year to run, Phillips said. The committee is fundraising to cover this cost.

Dixon said his foundation has established an endowment to fund clinic renovations. Much of the work for renovations will be donated, and Phillips said for this reason it’s tough to put a dollar figure on how much it would cost.

Concerns exist for the duplication of services between the planned VIM clinic and the Lebanon Health Clinic, which opened a few months ago.

The free clinic treats low-income and homeless county residents, is staffed by volunteers and is affiliated with Lancaster-based Water Street Ministries. It does not require patients to be employed, but does place the same income and residency restrictions as the proposed VIM clinic.

“We do need to be careful going forward because we’re tapping the same pool of volunteers and the same funding sources as the other clinic,” said Gale Thomason, executive director of health services for Water Street Ministries.

The groups have had preliminary discussions about collaborating in the future, she said.