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Opinion/Editorial: Free clinics help, but country needs comprehensive care

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A patient receives COVID vaccinate at the Greene Care Clinic.

As she wound down a successful career as a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina and a researcher at the National Science Foundation, Pam Morris wanted “something with purpose, something challenging.”

She got her wish when she became executive director of the Greene Care Clinic two and a half years ago. Morris manages one of two free clinics in a region that covers the counties of Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson, along with the city of Charlottesville. The other is the Charlottesville Free Clinic.

Morris’ office is a folding table and chair stuffed into a store room packed with medical supplies and a water heater. Other space in the aging suite of offices in Stanardsville must go to three examination rooms and a check-in area, all of it furnished with donated equipment or things bought with the grant money for which Morris constantly applies.

Among many philanthropies, The Dave Matthews Band Bama Works Fund, Rappahannock Eelctric’s Power of Change and the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation have come through.

A lot of Morris’ job is fundraising.

The Greene Care Clinic started in 2005 in the hallway of the local public library. It has since moved to Stanard Street. It treats adults ages 19 to 64 with incomes between 138% and 300% of the federal poverty level. That’s the space where America’s working poor fall through the cracks for Medicaid coverage.

The clinic gives these people free care that meets or exceeds the quality of health treatment and maintenance they could get at any of area’s private practices or medical centers.

The clinic is good at managing chronic diseases such as high blood pressure. It offers COVID vaccinations. The Sentara oncology department was out not long ago to screen for colon cancer.

“We keep people out of the emergency rooms,” Morris added. “That’s a huge service.”

The clinic works because it negotiated with the University of Virginia and Sentara for support, such as blood analysis, imaging services, and specialist referrals. Morris also has an agreement with Greene Pharmacy, a local business that accepts prescriptions written by clinic practitioners and warns Morris to reach out for donations or discounts from drug makers when a medication carries an extremely high price tag. Above all, the Greene Care Clinic benefits from volunteers who are highly skilled, widely experienced and compassionately devoted. These include nurse practitioners and registered nurses from top flight area institutions.

“People think this is second rate care,” said Morris, who was born and raised in Albemarle. “But it really, really isn’t.”

What it is, unfortunately, is the way too many people living in the world’s richest economy are forced to get their medical care. This is because the U.S. lacks comprehensive health coverage. An estimated 31 million Americans still don’t have health insurance coverage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This past November I was speaking to a group of women educators,” Morris said. “The first thing they asked was ‘Who are your patients?’ I told them, ‘They are the people we see every day. But we don’t think to ask ourselves if they have health insurance.’”

Folks like the person mowing your lawn or helping the plumber.

Where they fit into the U.S. health care system continues to confound policymakers. Politicians’ disdain for and institutional resistance to comprehensive health coverage hurts. Providers and insurers in the U.S. health system are dong fine and so they balk at Medicare for all. Republican-run states initially refused federal funding to help expand Medicaid programs after passage of the Affordable Care Act. Some Republican states have now come around but not all. Eleven states, most of them in South, continue to victimize the working poor as they rant against “socialized medicine.”

The ACA, by the way, is NOT socialized medicine. Socialized medicine is what most of the world’s developed countries offer their citizens.

Those countries guarantee health care as a right, not an unaffordable privilege.

Those countries rarely need free clinics, like the Greene Care Clinic.

Those countries do not force working people to depend on the charity of strangers for their basic health care so they can stay well and, in some cases, alive.

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