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Times Tough for Maine's Free Medical Clinics
12/06/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

A free medical clinic in Portland is in danger of ending services by February if it doesn't get more funding. For more than 20 years, the India Street Public Health Center has served hundreds of patients who don't have health insurance. There are other free clinics and they receive plenty of in-kind health support from hospitals. But as Patty Wight reports, the challenge is raising money to pay staff and keep the doors open.

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Times Tough for Maine's Free Medical Clinics Listen
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Free clinic 2

Aside from the India Street clinic (above), the only other free clinic in Portland is a place called the Root Cellar. The Root Cellar is open twice a week - once for adults, once for kids. Maureen Merrill oversees the clinic.

"People kind of come here in a gap situation," she says. "Oftentimes, their MaineCare - they no longer qualify, in-between jobs. Again, like the working poor."

"I've been coming for over a year, maybe closer to two years, on and off," says Linda Nevins. "I did have MaineCare for a while and they dropped me, and I had to come back."

Free clinic 1Nevins (left) relies on this clinic for ongoing medical care for her knees. The Root Cellar is a faith-based organization, and it receives support from a number of area churches. Raising money has not been a struggle. Amd Maureen Merrill says the clinic has been seeing a couple hundred patients a year. But she expects things to get busier.

"The state of Maine is talking about less people on MaineCare, and as people lose MaineCare, I do feel like we will have more people inquiring and needing our services," Merrill says.

There may be even more demand if the other free clinic in Portland closes. "This is the headquarters, or mission control of the free clinic," says Caroline Teschke, the administrator and manager of clinical services at the India Street Public Health Center.

There are many services offered here, and the free health clinic occupies the front of the center, with a desk and six exam rooms. Most of their 600 clients can't afford to take time off work, so it's open in the evening, four days a week.

But those patients may be forced to find care elsewhere if the clinic doesn't raise $100,000 to cover their annual operating costs.

"I think a lot of them will be frightened and confused," Teschke says. "And I think they would go to the emergency room because that's the other place you get free care - you don't really, but that's how it's perceived ,and that's often what happens."

The clinic entered tenuous financial waters last year. Mercy Hospital - which still offers medical support - withdrew it's financial support. Teschke says a federally-funded health clinic opened in Portland, and Mercy thought it would absorb the India Street patients. But Teschke says their patient load has remained the same, and it's because they serve a different niche. The other clinic is only open during the day, and operates on a sliding fee scale.

"For a lot of our patients, even the thought of a co-pay is a huge barrier, and they're embarrassed," Teschke says. "You know, nobody wants to be put in a position of feeling that they owe money. And they don't have those barriers here."

"We're in the same boat," says Linda Grindle, the office coordinator for the Ellsworth Free Medical Clinic. They serve up to 2,000 patients a year, and have a $65,000 budget. She says the clinic was on the brink of closing at the end of this month.

"We've done a couple capital campaigns, which doesn't seem to yield a huge amount - I was hoping it would yield more," Grindle says. "And now we're busily going to be writing grants."

Two weeks ago, a donor came forward. Grindle says that should keep the clinic operating until the spring, when some of those grants will, hopefully, come through.

Caroline Teschke, from the India Street Clinic, is also busy writing grants, and a group called the Friends of the Free Clinic has formed to try to raise money. Teschke says given the changes and uncertainty the Affordable Care Act will bring, the clinic's role is more important than ever.

"My real fear is that people will slip through the cracks. They'll get lost in all that. They won't know what to do. They won't know how to figure it out," Teschke says. "And that's a role we could very easily transition into. We could become like a portal to help people through this time."

Teschke says the Friends of the Free Clinic will first approach restaurants for donations, because the clinic serves many wait staff in the Portland area.

Photos by Patty Wight.



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