Health care reform raises concerns for local free clinics

By Michaela Gibson Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Free clinic organizers in Tupelo are watching carefully to see if the president’s health care reform can deliver any relief for people without insurance in north Mississippi.
“I foresee basically the same issue as when the clinic started in 1992,” said Cindy Sparks, executive director of the Antone Tannehill Good Samaritan Free Clinic in Tupelo, which serves working Lee County residents who can’t afford insurance. “The working poor will fall through the cracks.”
Last week, the Supreme Court validated President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which was designed as a way to reduce the ranks of uninsured. The justices found that it was constitutional to encourage people to purchase health care insurance through threat of a penalty on their income taxes. The justices also ruled that the federal government couldn’t require that states expand their Medicaid programs.
“If they expand Medicaid … it will help some of our folks, but it won’t help all,” Sparks said.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and other state leaders have said they have no intention of expanding Medicaid, a program Mississippi already struggles to fund despite a high level of federal matching funds.
Tree of Life Clinic founder Dr. Joe Bailey is concerned the clinic’s patients could be caught between subsidies and penalties in the individual mandate.
“I’m worried about the possibility of throwing them into a situation where they’re buying food or buying insulin,” Bailey said.
The Affordable Care Act does provide exemptions from the penalties, as well as subsidies to help people purchase insurance. People can’t be asked to pay more than 8 percent of their income in health insurance premiums. That percentage gets smaller the closer a family’s income gets to the poverty line.
But even a modest amount of insurance premium may be out of reach, Sparks said. For families earning $20,000 a year, even $100 a month for health insurance may be too much.
“Doing without is their only option,” Sparks said.
The uninsured population in Mississippi is substantial: 500,000 adults and 100,000 children under current estimates.
The Good Samaritan Clinic logs about 2,900 patient visits a year; volunteer health care professionals see patients four days a week at the clinic, which also provides medications. Patients have to meet income, employment and residency requirements.
The Tree of Life Free Clinic functions as a medical mission with clinics offered twice a month with an all-volunteer staff. They see about 230 medical and dental patients each month. They see any patient without public or private health insurance.
Both clinics will be watching the developments with the health care reform law and adjusting to continue to serve the people who need them.
“I don’t think it’s settled yet,” Bailey said, noting Republicans have vowed to repeal the law.
michaela.morris@journalinc.com