Ellsworth free clinic faces closure as funding dries up

Posted Dec. 27, 2012, at 5:56 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 29, 2012, at 10:07 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Hundreds of patients may be left with nothing but the emergency room if funding for the Ellsworth Free Medical Clinic doesn’t come pouring in by March.

Dr. Ken Senter, a retired surgeon from Sedgwick, has volunteered at the free clinic since 1995. He said the clinic has an operating budget of about $63,000 and is facing a huge budgetary deficit because of a lack of big-money donations.

Senter said that unless a financial miracle happens, the clinic will likely have to close by March.

“I don’t feel very hopeful,” he said Thursday. “It’s not a pretty picture, and I feel badly for all our patients.”

The clinic opened in 1993 to serve uninsured and indigent patients Down East. It’s staffed by five doctors and five clinical nurse volunteers, plus a nurse manager who receives a modest stipend. Last year, the clinic saw more than 1,500 patient visits, and Senter expects the number to top 2,000 in 2012.

The bulk of the clinic’s budget in recent years came from from the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, which awarded the medical office $50,000 gifts in ‘03, ‘05, ‘07 and every year from 2008 to 2011.

But this year, the foundation turned the clinic down.

“Usually we provide funding for an organization and ask them to wait two years before we provide funding again,” said Stephanie Leonard, the foundation’s administrator.

Leonard said she’s sorry to hear about the free clinic’s financial troubles, but the King Foundation is not meant to be a source of emergency funding or a constant revenue stream.

“The clinic is one of the Ellsworth area organizations that we’ve been very consistent in providing funding to,” she said, but “it’s never been our intention to be the sole source of funding for any organization.”

Senter said he worries that if the clinic closes, its patients will become a burden on the emergency room at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth. There, they may be eligible for charity care, but those costs will be shifted to other patients.

Gordon Smith, executive vice president for the Maine Medical Association, said the handful of free clinics in Maine are a stop-gap to prevent the poorest and the uninsured from going without health care.

“It is not the answer to universal coverage in this country,” Smith said. “The best thing would be if we didn’t need free clinics because everybody had insurance. Everyone realizes that. A lot of clinics would actually like to be phased out, because everyone knows this is not the answer to people’s health care needs.”

Smith said many free clinics do plan to shutter or shrink after the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare,” goes into effect in 2014. The creation of Obamacare’s health insurance exchanges will provide an avenue for poor Americans to access subsidized health insurance plans, he said, eliminating much of the demand for free clinic services.

Some have opposed Obamacare, however, for fear among other reasons that it will give the federal government too much control over personal health care decisions and that the increased coverage will end up increasing rather than decreasing healthcare costs.

Smith said he hopes donations will come in to keep the Ellsworth Free Medical Clinic open at least through 2013, until the health care law is fully implemented.

“If they could just hold on until 2014, there may be help coming,” he said. “So this is a terrible time to lose a free clinic.”

Senter recently made a public appeal for donations at the Ellsworth City Council, where he outlined the clinic’s plight. Some donations have come in, he said, but not nearly enough to cover the gap. In the meantime, the clinic is still accepting appointments.

“We’re gonna hang in there, and our patients will receive services free of charge right down the line until we’re forced to close,” he said.

Donations to the Ellsworth Free Medical Clinic may be mailed to 248 State Street, Suite 16, Ellsworth, ME 04605 or by calling 667-7953.

This story was amended on Dec. 29 to correct the quote by Gordon Smith, indicating he said clinics are not the answer to universal coverage.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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