By Katherine Stone (TC Daily Planet)
Know someone who is uninsured and doesn’t qualify for MinnesotaCare or Medical Assistance? St. Mary’s Health Clinics may be able to help. This network of nine neighborhood clinics throughout the Twin Cities offers free clinic hours weekly to those who have health care needs and nowhere else to go.
Almost everything associated with the clinics is donated, from the space (mostly at schools and churches) to the professional services of doctors, nurses and others who donate their time to provide care. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet of St. Paul, who manage the health clinics, have also found medical suppliers and pharmacies that are willing to donate supplies or offer them at cost. All care provided to patients, including diagnostic tests, medications and hospitalizations, is free.
“There is a safety net underneath society,” says Sister Irene O’Neill, executive director of the CSJ’s Ministries Foundation. O’Neill is in charge of fundraising for the health centers and CSJ’s other community programs. Of CSJ’s total program budget of $1.6 million, just under a million goes to running the health clinics.
Last year the clinics cared for almost 6,000 patients, the largest number in its 17-year history. That also translates to 250 active clinic volunteers donating 12,744 hours of time. The health clinic network includes three clinics in St. Paul, two in Minneapolis and four in the suburbs. Through a partnership with Park Nicollet, an additional 5,000 patients received free health care at Park Nicollet clinic sites.
St. Mary’s clinics are not intended to replace state or federally subsidized health programs. Instead, they are a safety net to catch the growing numbers of people without access to healthcare, such as those working in a low wage job that doesn’t provide coverage, or between jobs and waiting for health coverage to kick in, which typically takes a month after starting a new job. Others in need include people who are recently laid off and unable to afford COBRA, the insurance continuation program established by the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, which gave workers who lose health benefits the right to purchase group health insurance through their employer’s plan.
Most patients find the clinics through word of mouth and referrals from counties, churches and non-profit food shelves, says Barbara Dickie, executive director of St. Mary’s Health Clinics. People tend to use the clinics when they can no longer put off a doctor visit. “The people we see don’t call until they are really sick,” adds Dickie.
Historically, patients have tended to be low-income working people between ages 25 and 45, according to Dickie. But now she’s noticing “a disturbing new trend” with more families coming in after both parents have been laid off from jobs. They are also seeing more patients in their 50s who have lost their jobs and either can’t afford COBRA or can’t buy insurance because they have a preexisting condition. Dickie said whenever the Health Clinics open a new location, they quickly fill to capacity.
CSJ could be in for an even bigger influx of patients. Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposed budget would reduce funding for MinnesotaCare, the insurance subsidy for working poor. Under Pawlenty’s proposal, about 41,650 Minnesotans would lose coverage. Only about 10,000 of those would qualify for General Medical Assistance. The rest would be on their own to go to hospital emergency rooms, or find St. Mary’s Health Clinics and other local programs operating on a shoestring, if they exist.
The CSJ sisters have a long history of launching and managing health care infrastructure outside the mainstream. Back in 1853, the sisters opened St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul during a cholera epidemic. The fact that they were all teachers didn’t dissuade them or make St. Joseph’s any less successful. St. Joseph’s was sold to HealthEast in 1992 and the sisters immediately re-focused their efforts to bringing a new health care mission into the streets and neighborhoods.
“We got your back,” O’Neill says about CSJ’s commitment to the community. “The sisters are watching. They want to prevent people from slipping through the cracks.” In these uncertain times, those words are music to the ears.