By Donna Looper
In the early days of our nation’s history, the Founding Fathers wrote a constitution and created a system of government with limited powers. The poor would be cared for by charities or religious organizations — groups established as safety nets for those in need.
It is only with the vast expansion of federal and state governments during the last 50 years that we have seen a crowding out of the role of charities — from good works that nonprofits do from housing and feeding the poor to volunteer physicians and nurses who give medical care to the sick.
As Americans continue to debate the Affordable Care Act and the expansion of Medicaid in the states, policymakers and citizens should remember there is a partner available to help care for Georgia’s poor and uninsured: the state’s more than 100 charity care clinics.
Staffed with volunteer physicians, dentists, pharmacists, nurses and other health care personnel, these charity clinics help these patients manage chronic diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, asthma and other illnesses so patients don’t wind up in emergency rooms and cost taxpayers more money.
Health care professionals volunteer their time because they want to heal the sick and have a sense of compassion, no matter what the financial status of patients. It is because of that sense of giving that Georgia has more charity health clinics than any state in the nation.
Several of the state’s charity clinics also have dental clinics on site. Some are faith-based, while others are secular. They are a great example of communities taking care of their own.
Last year, Georgia’s charity clinics treated about 323,000 adults from rural, high-unemployment areas to urban centers, including Macon, Augusta and Atlanta.
According to the Georgia State Auditor, these clinics provide $200 million in care while reaching 16 percent of the state’s uninsured population.
And charity clinics can fill another need. They will continue to provide access to health care as more and more physicians refuse to accept Medicaid as a form of payment. A recent study by the Mongan Institute for Health found that 28 percent of primary care physicians who treat Medicaid patients no longer accept new patients with Medicaid cards.
But charity care continues to be available — and in demand — to those who can’t receive care elsewhere.
For example, the Good Shepherd Clinic in Morrow, like almost all charity clinics, is popular and has a long waiting list due to high unemployment and few adults in its community with health insurance. Like many of Georgia’s charity clinics, Good Shepherd does not charge eligible patients. Charity clinics that do charge patients have a sliding-scale fee.
Good ideas never go out of style. Policymakers need to consider lending a hand to charity health care providers. Neighbors step up to aid neighbors when given the opportunity. If charity health care worked when our nation was in its infancy, it certainly can be part of the solution for a country facing potential bankruptcy over health care entitlements.
Donna Looper is executive director of the Georgia Charitable Care Network.