Dancing for Birmingham Free Clinic

by Swati Rajprohat

In a city like Pittsburgh, gleaming with some of America’s top hospitals, physicians, and care, it’s hard to believe that there are still people that cannot take advantage of these facilities. 48 million people in the United States are uninsured, and many of these people reside within the corners of Pittsburgh. The public awareness of the gap between the insured and uninsured has noticeably grown, due in part to the recent instantiation of the Affordable Care Act. However, years before any such legislature was even drafted, the Birmingham Free Clinic (BFC) was helping those without insurance get medical care right here in Pittsburgh. With a volunteer-based staff, only three paid employees, and a small annual budget of $200,000, the BFC serves more than 3,200 members of the underserved population every year. The volunteer staff includes physicians, nurses, medical assistants, pharmacists, medical and pharmacy students, and Americorps members. BFC is in collaboration with many organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Pittsburgh Health Corps, SALUD Para Ninos, and Health Care for the Homeless Project, who are all are contributing to BFC’s continued providence of medical services to their patients free of charge.

BFC was founded under the Program for Health Care to Underserved Populations (PHCUP), by Dr. Thomas P. O'Toole and Paul J. Freyder of the Salvation Army in 1994, who were initially interested in providing healthcare to the homeless. Although their initiative was at first part of the Salvation Army drop-in center for the homeless, a greater need for medical care soon became their priority as they served about 600-700 patients per year. Their efforts to expand the project led to the founding of the Birmingham Free Clinic on 9th St. in the South- side of Pittsburgh. Between 2002 and 2004:, the clinic became known throughout the community and to social workers by word-of-mouth. As a result, growth was immense. Mary Herbert, MS, MPH, clinical director of the BFC, who started out as an Americorps member herself, remarks on its advancement in the past 16 years: “we've seen an incredible growth in the number and diversity of demographics of patients, from immigrants to patients coming out of incarceration,” Herbert says. In a 2010 study led by Julie Darnell, Ph.D., MHSA, at the University of Chicago, it was estimated that 755 of 1007 all free clinics in America (about 75% of free clinics) saw 1796 patients per year on average. Today, the BFC serves approximately double the national average.

Considering the immense number of people they serve, it’s a wonder that the free clinic is sustained and continues to operate with efficiency. The BFC's primary source of funding is provided by local grassroots fundraising efforts from Pitt students and individual donations. These efforts help support clinical activities such as medication expenses, diagnostic testing, and EKG supplies, all of which directly serve the BFC’s patients. Their office space was generously donated, along with IT support and electronic health record system, from the UPMC Division of Internal Medicine. Because they are a free clinic, and not a federally qualified community health center, BFC is ineligible for many forms of governmental funding. In fact, their current two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health will be terminating at the end of 2014; since the government is cutting down on grants to free clinics for the foreseeable future, a renewal is not guaranteed. Knowing this, the success and continuation of the BFC’s services vitally relies on individual efforts. “The independent fundraising is the cornerstone of what keeps the Clinic going and is very important to us,” Herbert says. By providing healthcare to the uninsured through community partnerships, volunteers, and service learning advocacy, the BFC is pursuing its mission to facilitate and improve access to high quality care for those in need.

Nonetheless, with only community partnership, volunteerism and minimal governmental aid available, the facility’s medical resources remain limited. The biggest need for the BFC, according to Herbert, “is overcoming deficit due to loss of state level grants for free clinics that had been offered for the past three years.”

Dhirana, the University of Pittsburgh’s annual Indian classical dance competition, has taken an active role in helping the BFC provide free care by raising money for medical tools and other necessary equipment. The 56 members of Dhirana have raised over $17,000 through ticketing sales for the BFC in just two years, becoming the clinic’s largest source of funds. In 2013, Dhirana donated enough money to allow the BFC to buy their first electrocardiogram (EKG) machine, an amazing feat, all the while promoting the Indian classical arts. Sushma Kola, co-director of Dhirana and first year medical student, has been a part of Dhirana since its inception in 2012, and played a role in choosing the BFC as Dhirana's official charity. According to Kola, Dhirana chose BFC because they ”really wanted to make a tangible difference in their community.” Kola believes that it’s very gratifying to support other countries such as India or Ghana, but Dhirana “really wanted to make an impact closer to home.”

With the second annual show just around the corner on February 15 in Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, the team hopes to raise even more money than previous years to donate to their cause. Although Dhirana is only in its second year of operation, it is rapidly growing, teaming up with Pitt Medical School organizations like the a cappella group PalPITTtations and the UPMC Medical School Silent Auction Committee to compound fund- raising efforts for the BFC. Meanwhile, Dhirana is always looking for more Pitt students to join organizational committees, and volunteer on the day of the event so that, in Kola’s words, “Pitt students will form a lasting relationship in their own city that has given them so much and be able to see the rewards of their contribution.”

Herbert and the BFC are extremely appreciative of Dhirana and all student volunteers. “Without the help of the students and community efforts like Dhirana,” Herbert says, “we would not be able to do what we do.” She encourages members of the medical community, Pitt students, and faculty alike, to attend this great event and enjoy a great art form while supporting a charitable cause.