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Free clinic's business booms in bad economy

  • Story Highlights
  • Free clinic offers care to those falling through the cracks of the health care system
  • Clinic expects to see more than 2,000 patients this year, up from 1,400 last year
  • Founder: Clinic is "entry point for the health care system"
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By David S. Martin
CNN
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LINCOLN, Nebraska (CNN) -- Sherry Pierce, who works at a fast food restaurant that doesn't offer health insurance, needs a dentist to look at three broken teeth that may be abscessed.

Sherry Pierce gets broken teeth examined. "I thank the Lord for this place," she said.

Dr. Shawn Semin examines Gotti Water, 6, at Clinic with a Heart. Gotti had ringworm.

Diabetic Shane Stender says his poor health cost him his job as a pizza cook and now he can't afford supplies to monitor his blood sugar.

Home health aide Nina Forst wants a doctor to check out a rash on her son Gotti's head.

Pierce, Stender and Gotti were among 52 patients who arrived one evening this week at Clinic with a Heart in Lincoln, Nebraska. The weekly clinic offers free care to those falling through the cracks of the health care system, says Dr. Rob Rhodes, a family physician who is president and founder of the clinic.

In these tough economic times, business is booming. The clinic expects to see more than 2,000 patients this year, up from 1,400 last year, according to Rhodes.

"The economy has definitely affected the number of patients that we see," he says.

"We have a large group, and it's growing, of those that are uninsured or choose not to choose an insurance plan or can't afford to sign up a family of four."

The frenetic Tuesday night clinic, staffed by volunteer doctors, nurses and others from the community, offers free medical, dental, chiropractic, optometry and mental health services in offices borrowed from a local charity on the edge of this Midwestern city of 240,000. Video Watch more on Clinic with a Heart »

Often, patients will try to see more than one type of doctor while they're there.

House Call
Hear from Clinic with a Heart doctors and patients this weekend on House Call.
7:30 a.m. ET Saturday and Sunday

Patients who need to see a specialist are referred to a network of participating doctors in Lincoln, assigned on a rotating basis, who charge at or below Medicaid costs.

Those who need primary care doctors are referred to The People's Health Center, a federally funded, non-profit community health center that charges a sliding fee scale.

Rhodes says his clinic is designed to serve only as a stopgap. Patients are limited to three visits a year.

"When patients come to see us, they don't know where to go for health care coverage," Rhodes says. "Maybe they can't afford to see the doctor they used to see, and they're looking for help. They're looking for direction, and we try to provide them with an entry point for the health care system."

Pierce learned she needed three teeth removed. She scheduled a visit the following morning at the University of Nebraska College of Dentistry, which would extract them for free.

"No health insurance makes it hard," says Pierce. If it wasn't for Clinic with a Heart Pierce says she would have left her teeth untreated because she can't afford a hospital bill. "I thank the Lord for this place here because they're a blessing."

A blood test at the clinic showed Stender's blood sugar was 419, almost three times what it should be.

"I'm a chronic diabetic. Insulin dependent. Unemployed. Can't afford my supplies," says Stender.

The clinic gave Stender a prescription for insulin and a device to measure his blood sugar, picking up the tab for both. They also scheduled Stender for follow-up with a primary care doctor in Lincoln.

"Had he not had any medical care here tonight, he probably would have ended up in the emergency department or in the hospital in the next several days," says Dr. Nicole Anderson, a hospitalist who volunteers as the clinic's medical director.

A volunteer doctor diagnosed ringworm, a fungal infection, in Forst's son Gotti, 6. He gave Forst a prescription she could fill at no charge.

"It was great. We got in and out. We weren't here very long, and we got a prescription," Forst said.

Rhodes got the idea for Clinic with a Heart after going on a medical mission trip with his church to Reynosa, Mexico, in 2002.

"I thought, my gosh if we can do that, there's got to be some way we can provide care to those people back in Lincoln, Nebraska, in our back yard, that are falling between the cracks."

A national survey shows Americans are struggling to pay for health care amid other financial woes.

In March, 28.7 percent of those surveyed said a member of the household deferred medical care in the previous 30 days, up from 23.7 percent a month earlier, according to the monthly National Research Corporation Ticker survey.

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Asked why, 33 percent said they were unable to pay; 26.8 percent said they had no insurance and 15.1 percent said the treatment was not covered by their health plan, according to the monthly survey of 25,000 households nationwide.

In Lincoln, Clinic with a Heart is thriving, Rhodes says, but he wishes it weren't. He says he'd love to be put out of business.

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