Providing Health Care Access for All

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Tompkins Weekly 11-2-15

By Abbe Lyons

Can you imagine a community where everyone is connected to compassionate, quality, integrative, health care? That’s the vision of sustainability that inspires more than 120 volunteers at Ithaca Health Alliance, including all Free Clinic health care providers.

Thanks to the dedication, creativity, hard work and community spirit of Alliance staff and volunteers, area residents are able to access much needed health care that they could otherwise not afford, and to learn to take better care of themselves through the Health Alliance’ three programs: Ithaca Health Fund, Ithaca Free Clinic and Community Health Education.

Accessing medical care has, if anything, become more complicated. Affordable health insurance is still out of reach of many area residents. Before the Affordable Care Act, self-employed people could purchase insurance as businesses. Now they must apply as individuals through the Marketplace, often at significantly higher rates. Even with tax credits many have seen their premiums go up. But even if everyone were insured, would they really have access to health care? Marketplace plans with the most affordable premiums are functioning as catastrophic insurance, with deductibles from $2,000 to $11,000.

With Ithaca’s more dubious top 10 distinctions (most expensive places to raise a family; highest health insurance premiums for plans purchased through the Marketplace), out of pocket costs for health care are still a serious obstacle to the financial health of many area residents, both with and without insurance.

Fortunately, thanks to Ithaca Health Fund financial advocate volunteers, you can find out if you qualify for a charitable care assistance program to reduce such costs, and get help negotiating a payment plan that is actually affordable for you. Some people are so overwhelmed that they hesitate to even apply, but our advocates can help navigate through the bureaucracy by combining savvy and compassion. “I cannot fathom the hardships my family and I would’ve had to endure to get through this situation without your help,” wrote Sarah, an Ithaca Health Fund client, after receiving assistance in reducing her medical debt.

When you’re already stretching to pay monthly premiums, you’re probably going to scrimp on your medication or delay seeking care for fear of the cost. At Ithaca Free Clinic, knowing that services are free makes a real difference, and many times patients tell us they would otherwise not seek care or go to the emergency room. Sometimes, uninsured patients, most of them working people, will come in with conditions that could have been treated easily early on but now have progressed to a much more serious state. Others, after getting diagnosed and treated for pneumonia, thyroid conditions, high blood pressure or diabetes, say, “You saved my life!”

Beyond seeing a primary care provider, many health insurance plans do not cover services such as working with a dietitian to learn how what you eat can help you manage your chronic condition more effectively or an occupational therapist to discover ways to continue to live independently as an elder with decreasing mobility. Few health insurance plans cover acupuncture or chiropractic care, and herbal medicine is not covered for anyone. These services can make a real difference for people’s health, especially in preventing and managing chronic conditions.

Ithaca Free Clinic patients with diabetes benefited greatly from IHA’s Cooking for Diabetes on a Budget class, held at the Southside Community Center. After attending this class, created by the Community Health Education program and taught by Free Clinic volunteer dietitian Sonya Islam, one patient said, “I’ve had diabetes my whole life and done a lot of classes, and never really understood how it works before.” A long-time Ithaca Free Clinic patient dealing with chronic pain from an injury reported that thanks to the acupuncture and chiropractic care she received, “I can use my arm almost normally. ”

Volunteers also tell us how much they value being a part of making health care more accessible for all. Physician volunteer Marty Ginsburg says, “I like knowing that I used my skills to do some good for people.” After graduating from Cornell, volunteer Crystal Han wrote that “I have always striven to go out in the world and do well. Now, thanks to you, I now want to go out into the world and do good.” Former Ithacan Jennifer Gemmell said, “The Ithaca Free Clinic is an absolutely precious resource for the community. I feel honored to have been part of it.”

For all these health allies— patients, volunteers, clients—the Health Alliance helped change their lives. Their stories, our stories, are our guide in bringing more of that vision—that sign of sustainability—into being.

Abbe Lyons is the Executive Director of the Ithaca Health Alliance.

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