More churches entering field of healthcare
With a rising number of workers lacking healthcare, community clinics try to fill the gap.
Jessie McClure first turned up at Church Health Center a decade ago with a heart problem and no insurance. Today, the retired preacher says he doesn't know where he'd be without the clinic: "I'm doubtful I would be alive."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
His voice is weak, his visage wizened, but he says he feels good, thanks to the clinic physician who has been his primary-care provider through it all. "He's been a lifesaver to me."
At the Church Health Center, the nation's largest faith-based, nonprofit primary health clinic, no insurance is no problem. It has treated tens of thousands of working people without health coverage in Memphis, one of the nation's poorest big cities. They are employed by businesses that don't offer health benefits or that hire part-time workers who can't afford health-plan premiums.
Across the country, community clinics are playing a bigger role in the nation's healthcare. Some are faith-based, like this one; some not. Some accept government funds; some don't. Some treat patients free of charge a few times a week, some offer broader long-term care like Church Health Center.
What they have in common is this: They are all trying to fill a growing gap in healthcare coverage. As of 2003, the number of full-time workers who got health benefits from their employers had dropped to just 60 percent.
"The cost of healthcare and insurance continues to go up, and more and more companies are not paying," says Bruce Jackson, executive director of the Christian Community Health Fellowship, a Chicago-based group dedicated to care for the poor. What Memphis's Church Health Center is doing, he says, "is a model."
Community clinics are also rising in number, in part, because churches are experimenting with new roles in their public ministries - including a growing focus on caring for the poor.
Here in Memphis, patients are treated at low cost by a small staff of doctors, dentists and nurses - some whom have accepted salary cuts of up to $70,000 to work at the clinic - and by a citywide network of more than 400 volunteer physicians who see patients in their own offices or at the clinic on evenings and weekends. The patients' medicines are donated by drug companies and others. The clinic is funded by various organizations, including churches and business foundations.
It is a grass-roots response to a rapidly changing healthcare landscape. Some 31 million were uninsured when the clinic opened in 1987 with 12 patients. Today, that number is 45 million.
"The need for it has become unbelievably important," says Dr. G. Scott Morris, the clinic's founder and executive director. "The problem has penetrated into the middle class."
In Tennessee health providers are bracing for even more uninsured. To remedy spiraling costs that had thrown the state budget into turmoil, the governor introduced a plan to alter TennCare, the state's health program for the poor and uninsured. A federal appeals court recently cleared the way for the cuts, which would eliminate care for 323,000 people. Critics say the cuts would be the biggest ever to a state health program.