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Free Clinic sees 40% jump in demand

December 14, 2008

There's never an easy time of year for Washington County's Community Free Clinic, according to Robin Roberson, its executive director.

But in the past two or three months, demands for the clinic's services have grown by 40 percent.

"We usually see an increase in the wintertime, but this is the result of people losing their employment and losing their health coverage," she said.

The surge in patients makes it that much more urgent that the United Way succeed in its 2008 campaign, which as of Friday had hit 52 percent of its $2 million goal.

United Way does not fund all of the Free Clinic's budget, but a portion of it that provides prescription medicines, Roberson said.

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Most of that medicine is not for allergies or skin conditions, but for chronic illnesses, Roberson said.

"The majority of our patients have chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or thyroid disease," she said.

They struggle with those conditions, she said, and with the emotional and economic burdens that they carry, she said.

For example, someone with high blood pressure or diabetes must not only obtain medicine, but should eat a healthy diet as well, she said.

Why should you care? If you're not a compassionate person by nature, getting these needs met keeps these patients out of the emergency room, where under Maryland law they cannot be refused care.

The more people who go to the emergency room, the longer everybody's wait is. If you slash your hand cutting open a box, do you want to wait for hours just to get a few stitches?

Now at this point you might be asking yourself, "Well, why doesn't it cover the shortfall out of its reserves?"

The easy but unfortunate answer is that although it's been providing care to the uninsured since 1990, the clinic has never built up a big reserve, not does it have an endowment fund, Roberson said.

In 2006, the clinic stopped accepting new patients for six months. Roberson isn't predicting that again, but said that if the money isn't there, "we would probably have to restrict our services."

The clinic has already seen a 25 percent drop in contributions over the last six months, she said.

"We're on pace for 15,000 patient visits this year," she said.

Most of those are seen by physicians who volunteer at the clinic, or who see clinic patients in their own offices, she said.

These patients are the working poor, she said.

"I think there's a large misconception that we largely treat homeless people," Roberson said.

"Eighty percent of our patients work full-time jobs, or two jobs, to make ends meet," she said.

They make too much to qualify for state-paid medical care and too little to afford health insurance, she said.

This isn't a small group. The clinic's brochure notes that of the county's 144,000 residents, 17 percent - about 24,480 - have no health insurance.

Clinic officials just don't wait for the money to roll in. They do three mailed solicitation letters a year and a mud volleyball tournament. In February, the clinic will do a "Potters Bowl" event.

The event, set for Sunday, Feb. 8, starting at 5 p.m. ay Trinity Lutheran Church on Randolph Street in Hagerstown.

For the price of a ticket, you get a choice of up to a dozen soups and a bowl made by a local potter.

Advance tickets can be purchased from Hagers-town's B'nai Abraham synagogue.

If you can help, send a check to United Way of Washington County, 33 W. Franklin St., Suite 203, Hagerstown, MD 21742.

Or you can donate online by going to

www.unitedwaywashcounty.org/.

Roberson and her volunteers would appreciate it.

"One thing that is very important to remember is that this is truly a grass-roots nonprofit agency funded by the generosity of Washington County.

For more about the Community Free Clinic, visit its Web site at www.cfcwc.com.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspaper.

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