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Free Clinic in Portland Gets Financial Reprieve
01/07/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Just last month, a free medical clinic in Portland was on the brink of ending its services because it didn't have enough funding. But a combination of foundations, businesses, and individual donors swooped in to rescue the Portland Community Free Clinic, at least through the year. It's good news for the clinic and it's 600 clients, but future funding may be a struggle.

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Many of the people who come to the Portland Community Free Clinic in Portland, said advocates, are caught in a gap. They're the working poor, those who make too much money to receive state-funded Maine Care, but too little money to afford private insurance. Until about a year ago, Mercy Hospital provided financial support for the clinic. Now the hospital only gives in-kind support, so funding needed to come from somewhere else.

"We saw this as a way to provide some bridge funding," said Tony Cipollone, president and CEO of the John Gorman Foundation.

The JGF pledged $25,000 after another funder, the Lerner Foundation, issued a challenge grant. Cipollone said the Gorman Foundation has given to other free clinics in the state. The idea behind this particular pledge, he said, was to buy the clinic some time without interrupting services.

"So that in fact they can do some more thoughtful planning for long-term viability and sustainability," Cipollone said.

"So now the real hard work begins, frankly," said Caroline Teschke, administrator and manager of clinical services at the Community Free Health Clinic.

She said the response to the clinic's crisis was overwhelming, it received $93,000 in one month, enough to pay three part time staff and operate for another year. During that time Teschke hopes administrators can devise a more sustainable funding strategy, something that is particularly difficult, given the changing health care landscape and the widespread struggle for resources.

"I mean there's pretty fierce, intense competition at the moment," Teschke said. "I think that there will be certain avenues that will be closed to us. I don't know whether we'll be able to get federal or state funding, for example."

The clinic may even need to change its model of care, including charging for services, according to Teschke. After 20 years of operating as a free clinic, she said she's reluctant to make that change, but she may have no choice. There are about a half-dozen free clinics in the state, and one recently opened in Lewiston, which operates with very few resources.

"Um, we don't have funding," said the Lewiston clinic's sole physician, Alice Haines.

She said she just started donating her time, the clinic operates one morning a week out of the Trinity Jubilee Center. Her equipment is basic, she said, but she can still provide a fair amount of services. Haines believes there will always be a need for this kind of care.

"Even in the future when we get the Affordable Care Act more established, I think there's always going to be a marginalized element of patients that's going to need more of an outreach than, say, a medical home can give," Haines said.

She said she hopes to secure funding in the future to hire an office manager and a social service worker. She believes that local money can sustain free clinics, especially when donors see the direct benefits their provides.


Photos by Patty Wight.

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