Free health clinic in New Orleans highlights need for reforms

free_clinic_nola.pngThis past Saturday, more than 1,000 uninsured people showed up at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans for a free health clinic organized by the National Association of Free Clinics and the Louisiana Free Clinic Association.

Many of the patients who came had not seen a physician since Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005, the organizers report. Most of the patients cared for at NAFC events -- 83% -- are employed but cannot afford to buy health insurance or visit a doctor regularly.

"We saw a number of very sick patients today who have not had medical care for many years," said Dr. Corey Hebert, a New Orleans physician and one of the event's medical directors. "This clinic was a life saver for many people who have no way to pay for their health care needs."

Some 840,000 Louisiana residents lack health insurance -- 22% of the population, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

According to preliminary numbers released by the organizers, 90% of patients treated at the clinic (pictured above) had more than one diagnosis, with hypertension and diabetes being the most prevalent. Besides being treated on the spot, patients were also connected with local clinics and other health care providers to give them ongoing care.

Rich Stockwell is a senior producer at MSNBC's "Countdown" news show who came up with the idea to raise money for free clinics in states with senators key to passing health care reform legislation; more than $1.7 million has been raised for the cause since anchor Keith Olbermann put out the call. Stockwell attended Saturday's clinic in New Orleans and wrote about what he witnessed there:
It happened as I watched a 50-something woman walk out, after spending several hours being attended to by volunteer doctors. "She's decided against treatment. A reasonable decision under the circumstances," the doctor tells us as she heads for the next patient. The president of the board of the National Association of Free Health Clinics tells me why: "It's stage four breast cancer, her body is filled with tumors." I don't know when that woman last saw a doctor. But I do know that if she had health insurance, the odds she would have seen a doctor long ago are much higher, and her chances for an earlier diagnosis and treatment would have been far greater.
The problem of finding affordable health care has been especially difficult in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, as Jeannette Alcon, executive director of the Lafayette Community Health Care Clinic, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
"They used to have networks and pockets where they could get services, but that was all washed away for them," Alcon said. "So here they are now, as poor, if not poorer, with none of the support systems in place. When you don't have health care, your quality of life is poor, you can't go to work, you can't do things you need to do to go forward."
"Countdown" reported that it invited U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) to appear on its newscast yesterday to discuss the clinic and health reform but was told that her schedule would not allow it. Landrieu has voiced reservations about the Democratic health reform legislation and has refused to commit to invoking cloture -- a procedure to end debate in case of a Republican filibuster -- should the bill include a public health insurance option.

The Hill reports that Senate Democrats hope to pass a health reform bill by Christmas but expect Republicans will try to delay by asking for the entire bill to be read on the Senate floor. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Health Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has said the Democrats will fight back by keeping the Senate in session, requiring Republicans to be there 24 hours a day and ending the reading should they leave the floor.

The next free clinic organized by NAFC is scheduled for this coming Saturday, Nov. 21, in Little Rock, Ark. That state is home to Sen. Blanche Lincoln, a moderate Democrat and critic of the public option who along with Landrieu and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) may determine whether Democrats can get the 60 votes they need to break a filibuster.

(Image above is from "Countdown's" Nov. 16 report on the free clinic in New Orleans.)