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Free Health-Care Clinic Draws Hundreds, Underscores Need

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Convention-480x360.jpgThousands of uninsured D.C. residents await free medical care. (Annie Lowrey)

Long before 11 a.m., when the Washington Convention Center opened its doors to local uninsured people, families and individuals filed into the halls and waited outside. By the end of the day, hundreds would pass through to receive medical evaluations and medical care, for free.

Today, the National Association of Free Clinics hosted its first one-day, free event in Washington, D.C. — the seventh in a series, but the first of its kind ever in Washington. The city does not seem the most logical choice: It has a lower unemployment rate than the vast majority of states, and nearly 90 percent of residents are covered. Still, the city has 57,200 residents without insurance — and millions of uninsured neighbors in Maryland and Virginia.

So, after hosting similar events serving tens of thousands of people across the country, NAFC set its sights on D.C. “Although this has been a historic year with the passage of federal health care reform legislation, uninsured people throughout the country still need free medical resources now,” Nicole Lamoreux, NAFC’s executive director, said. “This free clinic is not just for the sick but also for anyone who is uninsured and not seen a doctor recently.”

And hundreds came to the cavernous concrete room in the belly of the Washington Convention Center: everyone from grandparents to children, from joggers to curious homeless persons to men wearing suits and ties. The uninsured received dozens of services in 76 examining rooms, aided by 800 doctors, nurses and support staff, as well as hundreds more volunteers. They received EKGs, cholesterol and pregnancy tests, and dental evaluations. Medical workers encouraged participants to receive HIV/AIDS tests, as well, since Washington’s death rate from the disease is 10 times the national average.

The location being Washington, and the event coming just months after President Obama signed into law a bill making health coverage nearly universal, NAFC extended invitations to every member of Congress and their staffs, asking them to come speak with doctors and people receiving care. Just one, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) accepted. “I think I’m the only member who ever came!” she said, after greeting a long row of patients one by one.

“I feel strongly about the new law,” she said, referring to health care reform. “These clinics, being held across the country, they’re gap-fillers. But the system is still sorely broken. Most people I’ve spoken with today work, and some held two or three jobs.” Still, they did not have insurance.

Edwards also said health-care reform “missed the opportunity to provide federal support” for clinics, necessary “even in a system where we’re trying to get everyone health care insurance.”

And until health care reform is fully enacted — a process that will take years — 30 million remain without insurance. The sour economy and sky-high unemployment rate have not helped. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of people receiving free care at clinics doubled to more than 8 million people, though donations declined.

Damon Murphy of Fortsville, Md., came because he is an asthmatic, but has not had regular health insurance for more than a decade. Murphy lost his job detailing cars a year ago, and with no insurance and no job, had not seen a doctor “in a long time, a very long time.” Instead, when he had the occasional asthma attack, he went to the emergency room. At the NAFC clinic, a doctor prescribed Murphy preventive medication, and gave him some pointed wellness advice. To boot, the doctor performed an eye exam and got Murphy a prescription for new glasses.

After visitors received evaluations and care, they spoke with volunteers who informed them about other available services — Medicaid programs they might not know they qualify for, clinics in the area, benefits like Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

Staffers at the event touted the educational portion as the most important. Dave Kraly, a program director at the Medical Care Mission in Abilene, Texas, described it as “necessary.” He noted that the clinic included additional, related services — job referrals and instructions to help people find the best place to get their prescriptions, for instance. “If we can prevent people from having no insurance, or needing to head to the emergency room,” the clinic has worked, he said.

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