BIDDEFORD — After 22 years of providing free health care and prescription medication to those without health insurance in the York County area, the Biddeford Free Clinic at 189 Alfred St. plans to close its doors on Sept. 30.

Dr. Francis Kleeman, president and founder of the clinic, said Wednesday that the need for free health care in the area has been dwindling for the last several years and in recent months reached an all-time low.

After opening the clinic in 1993, Kleeman said the number of patients peaked at around 15 each of the three nights per week it was open and the clinic filled between 40-70 prescriptions. Several years ago the clinic cut its operations down to two nights per week, he said, and for the past three months the clinic has only been open one night per week.

“We started out with a plan to provide this care. We’ve done it and there isn’t much of a need for it anymore, so I’m glad that’s happened,” said Kleeman, who is 81 years old and lives in Kennebunk.

Kleeman said the idea to open the clinic came from a conversation he had with his children over Thanksgiving dinner in 1992. After his children told him about a speech in which Bill Clinton said about 15 percent of the U.S. population didn’t have health insurance, Kleeman, who was then practicing urology, said he agreed to look into whether there was a problem in York County.

“We found out that really there probably was a need,” he said.

So with the help of his wife and children, Kleeman eventually secured a rent-free space in what is now the J. Richard Martin Community Center in Biddeford, found about 25 doctors to volunteer and opened the Biddeford Free Clinic in June of 1993.

Kleeman estimated at this point only 75-100 people, who primarily live in the Biddeford-Saco area, regularly rely on the clinic for health care. He said the clinic only sees five to six patients and fills 15-20 prescriptions each week.

In large part, Kleeman attributes these figures to the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, which was signed into law in 2010 as a means of increasing the quality and affordability of health insurance. “I think it’s occurred mostly because of the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “There are other reasons too, but I think that’s the biggest one.”

Of the patients who still visit the clinic regularly, Kleeman said many of them qualify for health care under the ACA and the clinic is now working to get them in touch with navigators in York County, who will show them how to receive coverage.

In an email on July 1, however, Richard Rhames, former chair of the Biddeford Democratic Committee and long-time proponent of a single-payer health care system, expressed doubt that the ACA was driving down the need for free care. Specifically, he called the legislation “Byzantine” and said “even its supporters concede it will leave about 35 million people uninsured.”

For example, Rhames pointed to the fact that Maine was one of 22 states to decide against expanding Medicaid, after in 2012 the Supreme Court deemed the ACA’s call for nationwide Medicaid expansion unconstitutional.

But even if all the clinic’s remaining patients aren’t able to secure coverage under the ACA, Kleeman said there are other local affordable health care options available. He said Southern Maine Health Care in Biddeford, for example, has already agreed to accept all of the clinic’s patients if it needs to.

Additionally, Kleeman said Nasson Health Care in Springvale operates a federally-funded clinic that would accept the Biddeford clinic’s patients, and there is a free clinic in Buxton as well as one associated with York Hospital.

“We are contacting each patient … and we are telling them that the following services may be available to them,” he said. “We can offer them places to go, but it’s up to them to decide where they want to go.”

Looking back on more than two decades of running the clinic, Kleeman said he would like to thank the volunteers and staff members who kept things running as well as the city of Biddeford for providing a space and utilities at that space free of charge.

“I’m happy that we’ve done the job we’ve done and I’m happy that we now can quit,” he said.

— Staff Writer Angelo J. Verzoni can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 329 or [email protected]

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