Clinic serves underserved|Helps those on margins of health care

Published 2:48 pm Sunday, August 30, 2009

Daily News Correspondent

Gene is sick.
He needs blood-pressure medicine and a doctor’s care, but he is unemployed and lacks health insurance.
Gene, whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons, is seeking work as a laborer.
Even if he gets a job, it’s unlikely his employer will provide health coverage, he said, adding that he’s been without health insurance for about 10 years.
With so many doors closed to him, Gene finds an open door at the Agape Community Health Clinic in Washington.
He said his per-visit payments, which are based on his income, are $10.
And there is an added bonus: “They’ve always treated me nice,” he said.
Agape, located at 118 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, serves around 35 to 40 patients a day, according to Dr. Kathleen Zeller, medical director.
Those numbers would be larger if more people were aware of the clinic’s services, Zeller suggested.
“I think a lot of people feel that they can’t afford health care, so they just don’t go,” she said. “It is not well-known that anyone can come to us and we base our fees (on a patient’s income).”
The clinic’s full-time staff includes a new dentist, who will start seeing patients soon, related the Rev. David Moore, chief executive officer of Metropolitan Community Health Services, of which Agape is a service.
In addition to Zeller and others, the medical staff also sports an HIV specialist, a physician’s assistant and a family nurse practitioner, reads the clinic’s Web site.
Agape, which operates out of a converted bowling alley, features a lab, a new machine for taking dental X-rays, 12 exam rooms and multiple offices, Moore indicated during a tour.
At the bottom of the spacious clinic’s sliding fee scale is a minimum co-pay of $10, Moore said, but that doesn’t mean that all comers can handle that cost.
“What if you don’t have the 10 dollars?” Moore asked.
Some patients, particularly seniors, can’t afford to have their prescriptions filled, he noted.
“They have to make a choice: ‘Do I eat or get my meds?’” he said.
The clinic participates in a program through which pharmacists request donations of medications from drug companies, Moore said.
That program has income guidelines and not everyone can participate, he related.
It takes more than two months to process an individual’s paperwork for the program, and not all types of prescription drugs qualify, Zeller said.
One local government official said recently that the financially distressed who need medical help can find it at Agape.
On Aug. 8, Beaufort County Commissioner Al Klemm attended a rally to oppose Democratic health care-reform measures winding their way through Congress.
The rally, which was held on Washington’s waterfront, was organized in part by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity.
“I think we’ve built a big, giant health-care bureaucracy,” Klemm said in an interview during the rally.
Klemm, a Republican, said Americans should expect better health care at a better price. He added that, on a local level, health care is available to the uninsured through Agape.
“Nobody’s refused health care in Beaufort County,” Klemm stated.
“That sounds real good,” Moore replied in an interview.
Moore and Zeller stressed a need to increase preventive measures and make sure that health care is open to all.
“We’re really pushing for yearly physicals,” Zeller said. “I’m probably doing three to four yearlies a day.”
Moore said that some of the clinic’s patients need tests that the staff can’t provide — tests that patients can’t afford to seek from outside doctors.
These and other factors can erect barriers to care, he said.
Some of Agape’s clients have HIV or diabetes, Moore pointed out, adding that obesity, diabetes and hypertension are huge problems in the minority community.
Some of these conditions could be avoided with earlier intervention, he indicated.
“It’s almost an epidemic,” Moore said. “The best way to save money is to keep people well before they get sick.”
There are limited funds for keeping the clinic in business, he said.
“So what happens when the grant money runs out?” Moore asked. “I can’t go back to the feds and say, ‘We need more money.’”
For these reasons, Moore hopes the ongoing health-care reform debate will keep the uninsured, and the underinsured, at the forefront of the public consciousness.
“Health-care reform would level the playing field,” he said. “That’s all we want.”
He did not elaborate on which reform measures he would like to see made into law.
Gene, who depends on the clinic for his primary care, said he hopes health-care reform will become a reality, though he isn’t optimistic that’s going to happen any time soon.
“I think what they’re trying to do is a good thing in some ways, but it’ll take a long time,” he said.
Beaufort County Health Care Numbers
Population: 46,344*
Percent in poverty: 18.4 percent*
Percent uninsured: 21.3 percent**
Total authorized Medicaid eligibles as of August: 9,420***
Sources (most recent numbers found on the Internet):
*N.C. Department of Commerce
**Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research
***N.C. Department of Health and Human Services
Note: Metropolitan Community Health Services says that, based on more recent data, 22 percent of the county’s population falls below the federal poverty level.