By Mark Brault, Special to the Herald
At the national level, the debate rages over keeping, repealing or changing the health reform bill that was passed last year.
At the state level, fiscal challenges are resulting in significant budget cuts, including the planned elimination of Basic Health in May.
At the same time, here in the Tri-Cities, Grace Clinic continues to work to meet the needs of those in our community who have no insurance and low income.
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Grace Clinic meets a part of this need, but is finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with the growing demand. The number of peoplewithout insurance continues to climb.
Some people lose their coverage because of a reduction in the hours they work, which makes them ineligible for their employer's plan. In some cases, significant increases in premiums cause small employers to drop their plans.
Also, the trend toward shifting a greater portion of the cost to employees as premiums rise causes many employees to drop coverage for themselves and/or their dependents.
The elimination of Basic Health would add more than 2,600 to the number of people in Benton and Franklin counties without insurance at a time when available services are already strained.
In 2010, the clinic provided 5,560 patient visits, a 16 percent increase over the prior year. The number of people we turned away climbed even faster, increasing by 25 percent.
The need continues to increase at a significant rate, and the primary effects of health reform, assuming that it is not significantly changed, won't be felt for three more years.
When people don't have reasonable access to health care, they:
* Are likely to miss more time from work (and probably don't get sick pay).
* Are more likely to suffer complications from chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.
* Are less able to care for their families.
* Are at greater risk for financial calamity.
The majority of our patients report to us that they would not seek care if the clinic didn't exist. We began surveying patients in 2007, asking them where they would go without Grace Clinic. Last year, 56 percent said that they would go nowhere. Most of the rest tell us that they would go to the emergency room.
Based on these surveys, in 2010, the clinic kept 1,670 people out of the ER. The clinic is also able to provide more appropriate care when dealing with nonemergent medical needs.
Patients in the clinic have access to follow-up care, help in managing their chronic disease and in many instances, will also have access to needed medications that the clinic is able to help them obtain from pharmaceutical manufacturers, none of which is available in the emergency room.
The demand for services is growing. Our base of volunteer and financial support needs to increase in order to continue to meet the need of basic health care for those in our community without insurance.
Find out how you can help at www.gracecliniconline.org.
* Mark Brault is president of Grace Clinic's board of directors.