No free clinic in Las Vegas

By: Buck Wargo (Special to the Las Vegas Business Press)

The Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion in Nevada won’t dent demand for a free clinic serving the region’s poor, a nonprofit group’s leader said. 

Although Medicaid added more than 100,000 people and thousands more gained health coverage through the state’s health care exchange, Volunteers in Medicine is proceeding with plans to open a second free clinic in Southern Nevada in early 2015, this one serving residents near downtown.

The group’s clinic at 4770 Harrison Drive, Suite 200 near Tropicana Avenue and Pecos Road opened in 2010 and has served 2,500 people a year for the last three years. Volunteers in Medicine has undertaken a study to determine how many patients it will lose to Medicaid and insurance coverage, but Florence Jameson, the group’s co-founder and president, said there’s a deep pool of people who need the free care. The Medicaid eligibility went from 41 percent of poverty to 138 percent of poverty, she said.

“We don’t know how many (patients) we’ll lose yet,” Jameson said. “But the bottom line is we still have more patients than we will ever be able to see even if we lose patients.”

Even with the Affordable Care Act, Jameson said, there will still be nearly 300,000 uninsured Nevadans who will need free health services.

“There will always be working poor and uninsured that fall between 138 percent and 200 percent of poverty that don’t have immediate access to health care and need some temporary or long-term health care,” she added. “There are a lot of people still struggling with access to health care.”

Volunteers in Medicine has a $1 million-a-year budget that it meets through donations, grants and an annual fundraiser. It has eight paid staff members and relies on about 450 volunteers including doctors, nurses and other workers. The group gets most of its supplies and medicine donated and rents its site, a former recreation center, from Clark County for $1 a year.

Doctors including family practitioners, internal medicine specialists, podiatrists, dermatologists and psychiatrists serve Volunteers in Medicine patients. Patients can get blood tests and diagnostic tests that include X-rays, MRIs and biopsies. Patients can also receive insulin for diabetes and other medications they require, even if they’ve had a heart attack or stroke. The clinic, however, doesn’t offer surgery.

“We provide a lifeline to people who find themselves without insurance,” Jameson said. “If they are pending for Medicaid and need help urgently, we will reach out immediately as a life raft to keep them afloat until they’re on Medicaid and a doctor comes through for them.

“Even if they apply for Medicaid and they did qualify, they have to wait 30 days to see the doctor and it may be 45 days or 90 days before they get an appointment,” she added. “And if you’re discharged home after you’ve had a heart attack or stroke, you need somebody right away.”

Jameson is excited when she talks about opening the new clinic on an acre of land the group owns at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Madison Avenue in downtown Las Vegas. The site was selected because the near-downtown area has some of the valley’s highest poverty. Also, she said, the clinic will make medical care more accessible to that area’s residents, especially if they’re released from University Medical Center or Valley Hospital and need follow-up care.

Volunteers in Medicine secured $400,000 for the land, $250,000 for permits, licenses and fees and has $1.2 million set aside for the $2 million structure. The group plans to start construction once it gets $800,000.

The downtown clinic will provide better access for patients, Jameson said, and will better attract doctors to volunteer because of its proximity blocks from UMC and Valley Hospital.

“The doctors say if we can get the downtown clinic open, they can come more often and give follow-up care to the patients they discharge,” Jameson said.

Jameson said everything is coming together for the clinic. When the new-clinic push started, there were three collaborating partners. Now there are more than 50 partners, including local diagnosticians, radiologists and hospitals.

“I am sure anyone came to this great city and walked down that Las Vegas Strip and saw the glitz and glamour that they could ever dream that they could be one of those people, either young or old, that fell in that area where there was no access to health care, (that) they would not be able to see a doctor or get their hypertension meds or heart meds and they could end up with a heart attack, stroke or diabetic coma.” Jameson said. “These people go to the emergency rooms so many times and then they’re just depressed. They give up and stay home and many of them just die. It is sad.

“It’s embarrassing and a shame in this country we live in that this ever would have to happen,” she added. “That’s why we need that downtown clinic.”