Option available for those without insurance

October 13, 2009 6:33:12 AM PDT
A growing number of families are finding themselves caught in a desperate situation, needing to see a doctor, but with no way to pay for it. Here in Houston, there is an option many people don't even realize is out there -- free health care clinics. Gloria Molina isn't used to having to ask for help. But last month, she lost her job, and with it, her insurance. It left her with no way to pay for the pacemaker doctors think she now needs.

"I just felt really, really helpless," she said.

Molina says she tried to turn to government subsidized clinics, but felt caught in the red tape.

"I felt like I couldn't get help or anything," said Molina.

So like a growing number of others, she wound up at the San Jose Clinic, one of the eight free clinics in the Houston area that depend almost entirely on charitable donations. Doctors there will see any patient without insurance who earns less than $22,000 a year, or family of four with an income of less than $44,100.

The problem? More and more people are meeting those qualifications every day.

"More and more patients," said Executive Director Stacie Cokinos. "Really, more than we can take care of."

Free clinics nationwide say they are seeing their number of patients of skyrocket, from 4 million last year to an estimated 8 million this year. But here in Harris County, where one in three adults is without insurance, clinics have already reached their limit.

Administrators say demand spiked after Hurricane Ike, then continued to grow with the recession, and now the impending flu season.

"We are fully booked, fully booked," said retired cardiologist Dr. Efrain Garcia.

Dr. Garcia volunteers one day a week at the clinic, during which he can see as many as 16 patients. The wait list to see specialists like him keeps growing.

Rheumatology appointments for patients suffering from arthritis and lupus are already booked for the next six months.

But for patients like Molina, this is the best care available.

"They were so nice and everything. They made me feel so comfortable," she said.

They were a great relief in times of need.

At the same time that the clinic is watching the number patients rise, donations are also dropping off.

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