Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center: Filling the Gap

by Rachel Kosciusko

Once Idida’s kidney disease required dialysis three days a week, she was no longer able to go to work, leaving her with no job or dental insurance. However, in order to receive the transplant she had been waiting for, it was crucial that she receive routine dental care to remain free of infection. Idida is certainly not alone in her struggle to afford health care. In fact, she represents a sector of the population that all health care providers should be aware of when practicing in their community. Far too often when someone develops a severe illness, he or she loses the ability to go to work, leading to a loss of his or her private insurance and/or the income necessary for sufficient medical care. Others are frustrated because they work at a job that does not provide health benefits and earn just enough money to keep them from qualifying for government programs such as Medicaid, but not enough to be able to afford their own insurance. Workers in service jobs such as construction, food production, and housekeeping often fall victim to this dilemma. In fact, numerous studies have reported that when a large sample of people who have declared bankruptcy are surveyed, about 60 percent state that the reason is a direct cause of high medical expenses.

Idida found access to dental care at 212 Ninth Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh, with the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center. Since its doors opened in November 2007, the clinic has had over 30,000 patient visits, caring for over 13,000 individuals. This staggering number of 13,000 is made up of people who have no coverage under any other health insurance plan for the service provided, have a household income that does not exceed 200 percent of the poverty level and do not qualify for Medicaid, Medicare or any other government programs. The numbers not only show the colossal need for cities to acknowledge those who can not access health care, but they also demonstrate how much of an impact free clinics can make when this gap is addressed.

Of course, with today’s political climate, free health care is no foreign idea. The Affordable Care Act is in full swing and is expected to be making a huge impact this October with the Affordable Insurance Exchange. Sister Carole Blazina, a registered nurse practitioner and the clinical director of the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center, commented that these changes may affect the financial situation associated with the clinic’s patient population, but will certainly not eliminate the need for the clinic. “That gap that people will fall into will be different,” she states, “but the gap will still be there.”

In October 2012, a match was found and Idida received two kidney transplants. She has since reported she is doing “just great” and is grateful for the free dental care she received while waiting for the crucial surgery. But how can all of this health care remain free of charge without the federal government backing it up? The clinic is sustained through state-funded grants, private and public foundations and corporations and individual donors. Patients are able to fill their prescriptions through pharmaceutical assistance programs or through the generic programs at their local Giant Eagle. Giant Eagle gift cards are provided when the generic programs pose a cost issue. Most importantly, it is the vast number of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, receptionists, and other dedicated workers volunteering their time that form the foundation and allows the clinic to stay up and running.

While a growing amount of government programs and tempting affordable insurance commercials may fool us into believing that everyone can access health care, it is crucial that those involved in medicine understand the real need for the services that free clinics like the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center provide. “It is just amazing to stand in the hallway and watch the volunteers and the patients,” says Sister Carole. “Even if the patients are worried about their dental procedure or a serious illness, they still have the comfort of knowing they are being cared for and cared about, which can even be a bigger gift than the health care provided.” The Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center continues to thrive today, reminding future health care providers of the need to reach out to these invisible patients and fill the gap.