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Free clinic may have to cut services

June 17, 1999

Free ClinicBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer




The Community Free Clinic will be forced to curtail services to the working poor in about seven weeks if it does not receive an infusion of money, according to health clinic officials.

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The clinic, which has about $50,000 in the bank, will exhaust its reserves by the end of July, officials said.

"I don't want to be crying wolf all the time. That's why our focus is trying to find long-term funding sources," said Lorri A. Rice, the clinic's executive director.

The clinic's board of directors will meet tonight with Washington County Health System President Horace W. Murphy to discuss the problem.

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The board has met twice a month for the last three months because of the crisis.

"The clinic is in a risky position, possibly of closing," said Dr. Martin W. Gallagher, the board's president.

Gallagher said the board is considering reducing hours or cutting services if donations do not pick up.

A cut in services would hurt people like Janie Herbaugh, one of about a dozen patients waiting to see a doctor at the clinic Wednesday afternoon.

Herbaugh said she had private insurance when she suffered her first stroke in 1994. But when a second stroke hit in May 1997, her husband had died and she had no insurance.

Herbaugh, 48, said her only income is her husband's pension. She had a medical assistance card, but it expired in April.

The free clinic pays for her blood work, tests and regular checkups.

"It's fabulous," she said.

Belinda Helman, who also was in the waiting room Wednesday, said she was picking up medicine for her sister. A former clinic volunteer, Helman said she recently lost her private insurance and has public health coverage only because she is pregnant.

"After I get done having the baby, I'm going to need this place," she said.

The clinic, founded in 1990, serves the "tweeners," people who don't qualify for Medicaid or other assistance programs but who cannot afford private insurance.

That group has swelled dramatically in the last three years as welfare reform has knocked people off public assistance.

Since 1996, the number of people on Washington County's welfare rolls has declined from 1,500 to 350, according to David Engle, the director of the Department of Social Services. Only about one-fourth of the people who left the rolls have found jobs which provide health insurance, he said.

Meanwhile, the number of patients who seek treatment at the clinic nearly doubled to 8,019 from 1996 to 1998.

"I think the clinic is a wonderful example of how people will seek medical care when the barriers to access are removed," Engle said.

The donated labor and medicine that keep the clinic going are in finite supply.

Clinic officials said their chronic problem is that they do not have a large, stable funding source.

The largest portion of the facility's budget comes from grants, which often come with restrictions, officials said.

The clinic got almost 20 percent of its funds this year from the Washington County Gaming Commission and almost 12 percent from the United Way.

Clinic board members plan to ask the Washington County Health System to increase its $50,000 annual donation, and they appealed to the Washington County Commissioners and Hagerstown City Council on Tuesday night.

Gallagher said the board also hopes to hire a full-time fund-raiser.

Hagerstown City Councilman J. Wallace McClure said he thinks the county and city should chip in about $20,000 each to help the clinic past its immediate crisis. He said both governments also should build a subsidy into their budgets as they do for swimming pools, golf courses and skating rinks.

"Every year, we're going to have to look at this thing," he said. "We just can't let these people fall through the cracks."

The clinic plans to hold a fund-raiser next month and is sending out about 1,000 letters soliciting contributions.

Rice said the fund-raisers are important for keeping the clinic in the public eye, but are not a large source of income. For instance, she said she expects a casino night on July 9 to bring in about $5,000.

"It isn't the answer," she said.

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