The demand for free health care in the Athens area far exceeds what Mercy Health Center and the Athens Nurses Clinic are able to provide.
“We have hundreds of people calling for ten slots,” said Mary Baxter, office manager for Mercy Health Center. “We want to care for the patients we have, care for them well, but we have limited resources.”
Mercy operates on a first-come, first-served basis. They open a call-in line on Tuesday nights,, and the first ten people who get through will be given appointments.
“If we could recruit (volunteers) for every day of the week, we would be open every day of the week,” said Baxter.
One reason for the crush is that Mercy also accepts patients from Jackson, Barrow, Madison, Oconee, and Oglethorpe counties. Mercy has just moved into a former cardiology practice on Oglethorpe Avenue, near its previous location but much more spacious. The Athens Nurses Clinic is two miles away, in an older and smaller building.
“We see about 20 to 30 (patients) a day,” said Paige Cummings, executive director of the Nurses Clinic.
Mercy had more than 9,000 patient visits in 2012 while the Nurses Clinic totaled more than 11,000 patient visits last year.
“We do have a small amount of what we call the working poor, but their income still falls below 150% of the poverty line,” said Cummings.
Over at Mercy, about half the patients are employed, Baxter believes, which mirrors the situation for Clarke County as a whole.
Estimates based on the most recent census data indicate that approximately 20,000 uninsured people live in Clarke County, nearly half of them with jobs.
Statewide, there are thought to be more than two million people living without insurance – many of them turning to 100 different free clinics for help.
The working poor are not poor enough to be eligible for Medicaid, but not rich enough to afford private insurance, and they’re working in jobs with no health benefits.
In Athens, Mercy and the Nurses Clinic are where most low-income, uninsured people turn for help. Other options are the Athens Neighborhood Health Center (ANHC) and the emergency room at one of two local hospitals, all of which have drawbacks for uninsured people.
Uninsured people who go to the Athens Neighborhood Health Center pay a $50 fee for a first time visit, which doesn’t cover lab tests or medicines.
This drives some clients to the Nurses Clinic, where free medicines for common ailments such as high blood pressure and diabetes are available. “A lot of my clients say, ‘Ms. Paige, if I had $50 to give them just to be seen, I could go buy my medicines myself,’” said Cummings, the Nurses Clinic director.
Hospital emergency rooms are not viable alternatives for patients typically treated at free clinics, Baxter and Cummings agree. These patients don’t have medical emergencies that require dramatic intervention, but chronic conditions that require ongoing, supportive care.