Many think that the Affordable Care Act means everyone can have insurance. That isn’t the case.
While Medicaid covers the poorest of the poor, a certain segment of society makes too much money to qualify for government-paid health care, but not enough to afford traditional insurance — even insurance under the ACA.
Fortunately for the people of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Edwards Street Fellowship Center has stepped in to provide for these forgotten folks. The Edwards Street story is a model other communities might consider.
“We are a medical hub for this part of the state, with numerous hospitals and medical schools, but there’s no way to access it if you are a part of what we call the working poor: people who make too much to be on Medicaid but can’t cover all of the premiums, copays, prescriptions and other costs of healthcare under the Affordable Care Act,” said Ann McCullen, Edwards Street’s director.
A large number of people in Hattiesburg live without insurance. According to the Hattiesburg American, in 2014 the Mississippi Department of Health reported that 21 percent of the entire Hattiesburg population do not have health insurance.
McCullen says that before Edwards Street began, various faith-based organizations independently tried to provide free health care, but it never worked. To reach the community, the group realized a free health clinic needed to be a community effort. So business people, educators, doctors and faith leaders came together to start one. Though it is a community effort, the local Methodist Church runs daily operations.
The clinic offers free dental services, doctor’s visits and prescription drugs. However, the clinic didn’t open with all of these services at once. Instead, they rolled out the different features in stages.
“We take things in what we call baby steps,” McCullen said, “so that we can do things well and not let them fail by taking on too much at once.”
The clinic’s first phase began in February of 2015, when Edwards Street partnered with St. Vincent De Paul Community Pharmacy in nearby Biloxi to give free prescriptions to qualified recipients. Clinic professionals screen patients and send their prescriptions to the nearby Biloxi facility, which then fills the prescriptions and mails them to the patients.
The prescription offerings cover a host of issues but do not include HIV or cancer medications because they are so expensive. The pharmacy also doesn’t distribute narcotics. So far the clinic has filled over 1,000 orders, McCullen says.
The facility took its second baby step in April of 2015 when it started offering free dental assessments and extractions. The three dentists who volunteer have stayed busy. McCullen says the dentists told her most patients need at least two teeth pulled. One dentist reported pulling 20 teeth.
“The goal is to get people to the point where they can function,” McCullen said. “When you have a bad tooth, you can’t eat, you can’t sleep, you can’t work.”
People can also have their teeth cleaned by students at the local Pearl River Community College-Forrest County dental hygiene school.
Edwards Street achieved another level when it opened the Fellowship Health Clinic on Jan. 15. It features two exam rooms, a lab, consultation room, nurse’s office and lobby filled with work donated by local artists. At first, the clinic opened with two half days per week in January, increasing hours to one full day and one half day per week in February and one full day and two half days per week in March. Patients are seen by appointment only; all exams are free.
What makes Edwards Street even more remarkable is that the organization pairs social workers with patients to make sure individuals understand what the doctors have said. McCullen says they are the second clinic in the nation to offer such services. For every one visit to the doctor, people meet six times with their social worker.
The clinic isn’t meant to treat people long term. The goal is to help people so they can save and ultimately provide for their own health care needs.
Though Edwards Street wants to open the clinic full time, the cost of lab testing prevents it. McCullen says most of the patients haven’t seen a doctor in more than a decade, which means a lot of testing. On average, each person visiting the clinic has required four lab tests.
The clinic also needs supplies for its patients. People who must check their blood pressure or manage their blood sugar due to diabetes need access to tools. But those who visit the clinic can’t afford them. Edwards Street is trying to figure out how to address that issue.
McCullen says clinic leaders also are looking to the future. They want to expand the clinic’s offerings and add specialists.
“The big dream would be to add a nutritionist on staff,” McCullen said. “The University of Southern Mississippi School of Nursing is already doing a lot of education on hypertension and diabetes [among our patients], but we would love to expand those.”
Want to help? Check out FellowshipClinic.org to learn more.