The coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, has shed a bright light on the shortcomings of the United States health care system. When an epidemic occurs and communities are trying to contain the spread of the disease, it suddenly becomes crystal clear how important having accessible, affordable health care for all people is.

There are an estimated 30,000 uninsured in Atlantic County and more than 7,000 in Cape May County.

Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) was organized as a 501c(3) in 2001 to understand and serve the health and wellness needs of the uninsured and underserved living and working in South Jersey. VIM’s Cape May County clinic has been in continuous operation since 2002, the Atlantic County clinic opened in March 2017. More than 600 people consider the VIM clinics their primary care doctor and medical home. The uninsured and underinsured rely on free clinics like VIM for health care; they often say “I don’t know what I would do without VIM.”

Government is pushing health insurance companies to waive fees and co-pays for the coronavirus test. This is a great start. But really only applies to people who have health insurance. What about those that do not? More importantly, regardless of actual testing, what about the cost of care and treatment for those who contract the virus?

A large majority of our patients have serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. They are among the most vulnerable groups when it comes to the seriousness of this virus. They could end up in the hospital fighting for their lives. And if they manage to survive the infection, they will be confronted with insurmountable medical bills.

The uninsured are also faced with the reality of not being able to work for several weeks.

Our patients are often called the working poor. They work jobs in the food/restaurant industry, hotel/hospitality, many are musicians, artists, hairdressers etc. All of these industries are falling on hard times. People aren’t traveling; they aren’t going out to eat, to concerts or to the salon. The working poor live paycheck to paycheck and often rely on tip income. They certainly do not have the luxury of working from home or self-quarantining for several weeks.

On top of all of the issues facing our patients, there are also complications for our clinics. How do we keep our patients and volunteers safe and continue the much-needed health care services we provide with limited resources? We rely on volunteers, many of whom are retired medical professionals — who are in the age group that is particularly vulnerable when it comes to the coronavirus. We have traditionally operated on shoe-string budgets with limited and donated technology. The technological complexities and expense associated with virtual health and telemedicine is probably not a realistic option for our clinics, volunteers or patients.

On behalf of our more than 100 volunteers and 600 patients, we ask policymakers and business leaders to remember the uninsured and underinsured. We ask our local benefactors and friends to be mindful of the needs of local charities and safety net providers like Volunteers in Medicine. We respectfully remind you of our motto, “Neighbors caring neighbors.” Caring for each other is the only way we will all get through this.

For information about Volunteers in Medicine, please visit www.vimsj.org

Jacqueline Meiluta, of Sea Isle City, is executive director of Volunteers in Medicine, which has volunteer-based free clinics in Cape May Court House and Egg Harbor Township.

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