BLUE HILL, Maine — In her last years running Med Now, a private clinic in Ellsworth, Jane Garfield said she saw an increase in the number of patients coming in without insurance.
“The more I saw patients, the more I saw people with no insurance, and I saw that there was no good place providing care to people without insurance,” she said Wednesday.
At one point, she treated a young boy with severe bronchitis whose father was a lobsterman and whose mother didn’t work.
“It was a question of whether or not he would need to be hospitalized,” Garfield said of the child. “The [mother] was in tears because she had no money.”
Garfield was able to treat the child without sending him to the hospital, knowing the family would be paying off medical bills for years to come if she couldn’t.
Her clinic closed in 2012, in part because they were frequently treating patients with no insurance.
Now Garfield is working with other health care professionals in the area to open Peninsula Free Health Services for the uninsured. This free clinic will operate out the of the Congregational Church in Blue Hill once a week on a first-come, first-serve basis providing consultations, prescriptions and referrals as needed.
The new clinic comes at an uncertain time in the health care industry. The Affordable Care Act, which is in the midst of a tumultuous rollout, is meant to make clinics like this one obsolete by making affordable insurance available to everyone.
But the founders of Peninsula Free Health Services feel certain that some will be left behind, at least for the next few years.
“There is a glaring gap in Maine,” said Lynn Cheney, a certified Affordable Care Act navigator. “There are people who can’t get get on Medicaid, and they can’t qualify for affordable care. About 25,000 people in Maine fall into this hole.”
Cheney, a member of the Peninsula Free Health Services board, explained that the Affordable Care Act was designed with the assumption that states would take up the federal government’s offer to expand Medicaid to individuals who earn up to 133 percent of the poverty level. Maine, however, did not opt to expand, so only people who fall below the poverty line qualify for Medicaid. Those with incomes that put them at 133 percent of the poverty line and above, qualify for financial help under the Affordable Care Act. Mainers who hover just above poverty are excluded from federal health care assistance programs.
As a navigator, Cheney will be on call at the new clinic to help people sign up for insurance. She anticipates many Mainers will decide to pay the fines that will come as a result of not signing up for health insurance before March 31, at least during the first year before the fines increase dramatically.
“Bottom line — there are going to be a lot of people without health insurance for the foreseeable future, and that’s why we’re here,” Cheney said.
Garfield said that if the clinic turns out to be unnecessary, all the better.
“We’re eventually hoping to put ourselves out of business,” she said.
Plans to open this clinic began a year ago, when Garfield, Cheney and Leslie Goode, the executive director of Maine’s chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, began meeting monthly to make arrangements. They visited other clinics across the state, including the Biddeford Free Clinic, which they consider a model.
The Biddeford Free Clinic has been offering medical care to patients without insurance since it opened in 1992.
They see patients like Nancy Mclean, who lost her health insurance in 2008 when she left her job at Calais Federal Savings and Loan Association, and moved to southern Maine. She left work to take care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s disease and could not be alone. Mclean has diabetes and carpal tunnel, which has become so severe, she said, she sometimes can’t use her arms.
Mclean’s insulin for her diabetes cost between $200 and $300 a month. She paid for it out of pocket, eventually using up her entire savings and retirement until she learned about the clinic. Now, she visits regularly and has been signed up for a patient assistance program, which covers the cost of her medication.
“I can’t say enough about them,” she said of the clinic in Biddeford. “I don’t know what I would have done if it wasn’t for them.”
Garfield said that diabetes, obesity and cancer were health problems she frequently treated when operating her clinic in Ellsworth. She will be the doctor on call at Peninsula Free Health Services, as will Robert Walker, an obstetrician gynecologist who has practiced in Hancock County since 1973 and Sarah Hudson, who teaches emergency medical technicians at Maine Maritime Academy.
Peninsula Free Health Services will be open every 3-6 p.m Monday, starting Nov. 25. Patients will be seen in Pastor Rob McCall’s office at the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill. McCall and Goode will be available to help connect people with social services, such as heat or food assistance. The board members hope to establish a relationship with the Blue Hill Memorial Hospital where they will send patients who need more serious care.
The clinic has nonprofit status because of it’s partnership with Washington Hancock Community Agency, and it will be funded almost entirely by donations and everyone currently involved is a volunteer.