Recession Strains Free Health Clinics

Uninsured and underinsured flock to free clinics to meet health care needs.

UTICA, Miss., June 13, 2009— -- Her patients call her an angel on Earth. Sister Mary Trinita Eddington, a nurse practitioner, has been providing free health care to the homeless and the very poor for more than 10 years at the St. Dominic Community Health Clinic in Jackson, Miss.

Recently, Trinita has been busier than usual -- treating not just the very poor and the homeless, but also a flood of patients who recently lost their jobs and their health insurance.

"We noticed an increase when the economy was failing," said Trinita. "They are very distressed when they first come in."

Trinita often relies on donated drugs, but with all her new clients she stuggles to keep up with demand.

The free clinics were once the last resort of the American health care system, but with family insurance premiums rising, more Americans are turning to clinics.

According to the non-partisan Kaiser Foundation, in 2008 the average annual premium for employer-sponsored health insurance was $12,680 for family coverage, up 119 percent from 1999.

On Thursday, President Barack Obama proposed a strengthened public health plan to provide an alternative to expensive private insurance. At a town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wis., Obama said, "If the private insurance companies have to compete with a public option, it'll keep them honest and it'll help keep their prices down."

It is welcome relief for people like Daniel Chism -- who was laid off from his job with a General Motors supplier a few months ago.

"I had health insurance that paid for everything when I was working," said Chism.

When he was let go, the company offered him insurance he'd have to pay on his own -- but it was $800 a month, more than he could afford on his unemployment check.

Clinic physicians worry that patients who've lost their jobs and their health care now are skipping preventive treatment, which could ultimately make matters worse and much more expensive. Today's cough, they say, is tomorrow's pneumonia.

Dr. Jasmin Chapman, CEO of Jackson Hinds Comprehensive Health Center, runs nine clinics in Mississippi.

"What they do is they show up in the emergency room," said Chapman. "So if they had insurance, they would come and get preventive care, which is much more cost effective. Instead, they wait until the illness gets so bad that they can't do anything but go to the emergency room."