In October 2011, after spending time at a free clinic, Dr. Oz wrote an article for Time magazine titled "Enough is Enough - While we fight over health care reform, more blameless Americans grow sick and die." He wrote: "Politicians dither, and people die. Lawyers argue the merits of this or that technical point, and more blameless Americans grow sick and slip away. This isn't just a failure of politics and policy; it's a failure of basic morality."
It is now almost two years later, and our politicians still dither, and people are still needlessly dying. No matter which side of the aisle you sit on, it is deplorable that here in America people are dying due to a lack of health care.
Gov. Chris Christie's controversial decision to participate in the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion will extend coverage to 300,000 people - a nice sound bite. But this will hardly make a dent in the 1.3 million people in New Jersey without health insurance, many of whom will still lack coverage even after the ACA is fully implemented.
In Cape May County, one in five lack access to health insurance. Health insurance is a primary factor in whether and when people get necessary medical care and, ultimately, how healthy they are.
People without health insurance go to the emergency room with strokes, heart attacks, out-of-control diabetes and high blood pressure. They are stabilized and advised to "follow up with their primary care doctor" - only they don't have one. Later, after disease has ravaged their system and their finances, they will finally qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. We know preventive care ultimately saves money, so how can this make sense - medically, financially or morally?
While the nation struggles to find a solution to our broken health care system, there is a small group of people making a difference every day. I refer here to our free clinics. These clinics are a perfect example of what is good about America. They are a grassroots movement of neighbors taking care of neighbors. Free clinics receive no federal funds. They typically operate on a shoestring budget and are dependent on the good graces of their local community for support.
I am proud to serve as executive director of Volunteers in Medicine of Cape May County, a free clinic staffed almost entirely by volunteers - more than 100 of them who log more than 10,000 hours per year. Volunteers like Dr. Ken Cramer, who is in active practice at Cape Urgent Care, has a family and personal responsibilities but still finds time to volunteer at VIM. Volunteers like Dr. Steve Kornberg, a cardiologist who called to donate a piece of office equipment but quickly realized we also needed him; now he and his two daughters volunteer. Volunteers like Wanda Jones, who heard me speak at a Sons of Italy meeting and shyly asked "I'm not a nurse but could you use me?" She is now a familiar face at our front desk.
Few realize most patients who go to free clinics (83 percent nationally) come from a working household. A common misperception is "your patients are living on the dole," but that is just not true. Someone in the household is working; they just can't afford or don't have access to health insurance. The vast majority of VIM patients work seasonal or part-time jobs - the types of jobs that pay low wages and do not offer health benefits. VIM patients are our fishermen, chamber maids, bartenders and even real estate agents; they are our neighbors and friends.
VIM has one patient who is "lucky" enough to work for a public works department but as a "permanent temp," so he has no health benefits. We have a waitress who needs shoulder surgery; a landscaper with heart problems. A single mother with uncontrolled diabetes who eats too many carbs because pasta is cheaper than meat and vegetables. All of VIM's patients say, "Without you, I do not know what I would do."
Deuteronomy 15:11 says, "The needy will never be lacking in the land; that is why I command you to open your hand to your needy kinsman." This is the historic role of free clinics, and a role that will be required for the foreseeable future.
So while the politicians and pundits continue to debate health care, the volunteers at VIM and free clinics like VIM all around this nation will continue to be necessary. They will continue to provide care for the uninsured and will continue to struggle to make ends meet. Isn't it time America said enough is enough?
If you are interested in knowing more, visit www.vimcmc.org.
Citizen Columnist Jackie Meiluta, 49, is an independent small-business consultant who lives in Sea Isle City. She is executive director of Volunteers in Medicine of Cape May County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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