Closing the health-care gap

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Compassion alone should motivate us to support certain good causes. But if that’s too much to ask in a “me”-oriented, less charitable age, some endeavors should appeal to our self-interest.

A couple come to mind: early-childhood education, which will be the topic of a future column, and the Western Tidewater Free Clinic, the focus of this one.

The problem with America’s health-care system — even though flawed, unquestionably the world’s finest — is at least twofold: It costs patients more than it should, and too many patients don’t have the insurance needed to enjoy its full benefits.

The fledgling Western Tidewater Free Clinic aims to do its small part in correcting the latter. On a broader scale, the free-clinic model, if replicated successfully across the country, might be our best hope of fixing the former.

Two statistics:

– Western Tidewater, defined in this case as Franklin, Southampton County, Isle of Wight County and Suffolk, has a poverty rate of 19.4 percent, compared to a statewide rate of 9.8 percent.

– Sixteen percent, or about 20,000, of the region’s population, is uninsured: no Medicare, no Medicaid, no private insurance.

Many are working adults whose employers don’t offer insurance — or who don’t earn enough to cover the employee’s share of the premium in employer-sponsored plans.

A misconception is that those patients go without health care. Hospitals in this country, including our own Southampton Memorial, provide untold millions in uncompensated care to uninsured patients. If you’re truly sick, whether with a heart attack or a head cold, and you show up at the emergency room, you will be treated, regardless of ability to pay.

The Western Tidewater Free Clinic, on Godwin Boulevard in Suffolk, is taking some of the pressure off emergency rooms. In five months of operation, the clinic’s patient load has soared to 350, of whom 45 percent live in Franklin, Southampton County or Isle of Wight County. Care is provided by volunteer doctors and nurses. Operating funds, except for local government support such as $5,000 in initial seed money from the City of Franklin, come from local donors.

The clinic needs more volunteers and more financial support. For every dollar spent, the clinic provides $5.41 in medical care. For us insured patients, that’s $5.41 that won’t be tacked on to our next hospital bills. So let’s all give generously — for our fellow man and for ourselves.