December 11, 2012

Our View: Community should save Portland free clinic

This low-cost program provides real value in a system that is too expensive for many.

It is beyond doubt that the American health care system is still in need of reform. Despite the changes made in recent years on the state and federal level, more changes are needed to make sure that everyone has access to affordable, high-quality care.

click image to enlarge

The free clinic at the India Street Public Health Center will be closing due to cuts in funding.

Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

The challenge is making the improvements without letting go of the parts of the system that work. The Portland Community Free Clinic is one of those parts, and it's in danger of disappearing if someone doesn't take action.

The clinic offers free primary and some specialized care for people who earn up to 250 percent of poverty level, or $27,900 for a single person. Its evening hours make it especially attractive to working people who earn too much to qualify for MaineCare but can't afford insurance on their own.

The clinic provides care for 500 to 600 Cumberland County residents annually at a cost per year that one person could run up in an extended hospital stay.

Because it relies on volunteer doctors, nurse practitioners and other care providers and uses space provided by the city of Portland, the clinic can get by on only $100,000 a year.

Up until now, it has been able to get support from Mercy Hospital, but that partnership is coming to an end as the hospital finds other ways to fulfill its charitable mission.

There are other places for poor people to get health care, but closing the free clinic would be a great loss for the community.

Many of the people who can get their care at the clinic might not be able to afford even the sliding-scale fees at other facilities. It's likely that losing the clinic will mean hundreds of patients putting off preventative care and then going to an emergency room when they get really sick.

Incentives that drive people to take risks with their health and then access the most expensive care possible are among the core problems with our health care delivery system. Shuttering a low-cost program like the free clinic would not only be a loss for the people who get their care there but also would likely raise costs for hospitals, which would be passed on to everyone who pays an insurance premium.

Residents of Cumberland County should not let this valuable service disappear.


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