2008-09-24 / Local & State

Altoona Clinic Treats Patients Who Work


ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) - These people are among the patients who used the local free clinic on a recent afternoon:

Catherine Reeseman, 51, a telemarketer and grandmother who went years without regular health care, as did her husband, who recently died of untreated diabetes.

Diane Koller, 51, who works as a waitress, teacher's aid and baby sitter, and has diabetes.

Larry Cooper, 53, a former police officer disabled by nerve damage from diabetes.

Here's what enrages the clinic's founder, Dr. Zane Gates: All the clinics' patients work, or worked when they could. Yet they can't afford health care.

Gates wishes every Pennsylvania legislator could see this clinic.

He's convinced that if they did, they would overcome their political differences and find a way to help Pennsylvania's uninsured residents.

"It's one of the great social injustices of the last 50 years, that we have to have things like this,'' Gates says.

Democrats and Republicans said taking action to help the state's 800,000 insured residents is a priority. But they've been saying that for a long time, and time is running out.

Nine days are left in a fall legislative session that began Tuesday.

The sides seem far apart.

Democrats want a state-subsidized health insurance program that would cover about 273,000 people after five years. It would cost $1.1 billion annually, although about half of the money would come from the federal government.

Republicans said the plan is too expensive. They proposed helping the uninsured with a plan that would rely on free medical clinics and volunteer doctors. They said their package would cost $100 million annually.

Gates is stuck in the middle of the debate.

He's a Democrat. Yet he stood on stage among Republicans as they announced their plan, which would add about 120 free clinics, bringing the statewide total to 150.

Like many Democrats, Gates said everyone should have health insurance. But he's tired of the political debate surrounding "universal coverage,'' and wonders if it will ever happen.

He argued free clinics are the most practical way of extending health care to the state's uninsured, who he said are dying daily because of the long-term consequences of going without basic health care.

Gates said free clinics provide a streamlined way for doctors to donate their time and also provide an organization that can tap donated services from hospitals and specialists.

The Altoona clinic serves 3,500 people who earn too much to qualify for free health care from the government, but who can't afford health care.

Gates said it does so on an annual budget of about $750,000, or $207 per patient.

That includes tests and procedures provided by Altoona Regional Health System, which also provides the funding for the clinic.

A key resource is volunteer hours contributed by health professionals - 2,610 hours during the most recent fiscal year.

Another is $2.5 million in free drugs contributed by drug manufacturers.

Jim Barner, CEO of Altoona Regional, said the clinic is a good investment.

The regular medical care provided by the clinic prevents its patients from winding up in the emergency room and hospital, where they would rack up much higher bills, he said.

Others said it won't work.

Amy Kelchner, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ed Rendell's office of health care reform, agreed Gates' clinic is impressive, but she argued doctors don't have enough free time to sufficiently staff a statewide network of free clinics.

She said Rendell believes free clinics can be part of the solution, but there also needs to be a statesubsidized health insurance program.

Dr. Roger Longenderfer, CEO of Harrisburg-based PinnacleHealth System, said clinics might provide a "stop gap.'' But he worries state funding would dwindle, and the crisis would return.

State Sen. Ted Erickson, RDelaware, has been leading the negotiations with Democrats. Last week, he said the talks are yielding progress, and said a possible solution could involve a combination of statesubsidized coverage and a network of free clinics.

Erickson and Kelchner also cited common ground on a few other measures, including allowing dependents to remain on their parents' coverage until age 30.

In Altoona, Gates said he worries partisan politics will trump the need to help the uninsured.

But he said one thing is beyond debate: the 3,500 people who rely on his clinic get good, regular medical care, and are unlikely to die of an untreated illness.

"This place has been a godsend,'' said Catherine Reeseman, the telemarketer whose dying husband spent his last weeks in hospice care provided through the clinic. "Poorer countries can have health care. Why can't we?''

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