Free Clinic Sees Huge Benefits to Medicaid Expansion in Ohio

By Nicki Gorny

 Staff at the Free Medical Clinic of Greater Cleveland are used to seeing patients with serious health concerns who do not have insurance.  A lack of insurance often dissuades people from seeking medical help as early as they should, said Donna Korn, director of external relations at the Free Clinic. But it’s a problem she said Medicaid expansion in Ohio could lessen.

“If everyone had health insurance, they might allow themselves to have an annual physical,” she said. “Maybe they wouldn’t wait until they’re in so much pain they can’t stand it anymore.”

 This became a possibility through Governor John Kasich’s proposal to expand Medicaid to cover Ohioans with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line, with federal funding through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act covering 100 percent of the expansion for the first three years beginning in 2014. State legislators adjourned for the summer without signing on to the plan, but Medicaid expansion remains a possibility through ongoing discussions.

“This is too important an issue to just die,” Korn said.   Advocates continue to push for an expansion and in a July rally at the Statehouse the Governor said that the issue is not dead yet.

The Free Clinic, which Korn said strongly supports Medicaid expansion, has been active in sending representatives to meet with legislators to promote Medicaid expansion. And as debate continues among state lawmakers, she said, the Free Clinic will continue to lobby for Medicaid expansion.

A sizable portion of the Free Clinic’s patients, totaling 5,904 last year alone, would benefit from Medicaid expansion, she said. Typically, she said, patients come to the Free Clinic when they feel as if they have nowhere else to turn. Sometimes they’ve lost they’re jobs, she said, or have low-paying jobs without healthcare benefits. Other times patients may work two or three jobs and earn just enough money to disqualify them from the federal healthcare programs.

“[Medicaid expansion] would eliminate a barrier for a lot of people,” she said, offering the example of uninsured Ohioans who might ignore pain or symptoms because they don’t have enough money to pay for health care in addition to the week’s groceries.

 “People who have insurance - and our lawmakers are among them - they just…take for granted that healthcare is always there for them when they need it,” she continued. “And that’s the type of security we’d like everyone to have.”

 In addition to benefitting patients, Korn said, expanding Medicaid to cover the working poor would benefit the Free Clinic by providing a source of funding.

Last June, Korn said, the Free Clinic became a federally qualified health center, which means the clinic can accept federal funds from programs such as Medicaid. For the 43 previous years, the clinic ran entirely on donations, she said.

A financial counselor hired this year now works with patients and helps them apply for the Medicaid. While most are deemed too young and able-bodied to qualify for the program, Korn said, many could be reevaluated if Medicaid expansion is signed into law.  And in turn, she said, having more patients qualify for Medicaid would financially benefit the Free Clinic.

 “We would get reimbursed for the healthcare that we’re already providing them,” she said.

 In addition to medical, dental and behavioral health services, the Free Clinic offers substance abuse programs, including a program that allows addicts to exchange used needles for clean needles. On Fridays the clinic also offers naxolone kits containing a nasal spray that reverses an opiate overdose in 2-8 minutes, which Korn said is a good precaution for those with addicted friends or family members.

Editor’s Note: The Free Clinic is located at 12201 Euclid Avenue, and for detailed information go to http://www.thefreeclinic.org/

 Copyright Cleveland Street Chronicle August 2013 Cleveland, Ohio