22 Oct Free Clinics get Boost in Michigan’s Budget, but Depend on Donations and Volunteers
Thanks to federal pandemic dollars flowing from Washington and Lansing, an added infusion of $250,000 will soon be flowing to three essential clinics in Oakland County and dozens more statewide that provide free health and dental care.
The clinic operators say the care they provide is vital for people with limited or no insurance, filling gaps that remain in state and federal programs, including the Affordable Care Act.
According to studies by the nonprofit Health Care Cost Institute in Washington, D.C., free clinics save the overall health care system — and taxpayers, who might otherwise be footing the bill for things like Medicaid costs — millions of dollars in Michigan alone. They do it by treating many patients who’d otherwise be forced to get costly care at a hospital emergency room; and by helping others who’d be forced to skip getting preventive care, leading to more serious conditions that would ultimately be far more costly to treat.
The added dollars popped into the new state budget for fiscal year 2021-22, signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Sept. 30. It adds to the usual outlay of $400,000, for a new yearly total of $650,000. Yet, that amount must be split among nearly 60 clinics statewide, each of which serves thousands of patients a year.
So it’s a welcome but minor boon to these vital clinics, where private donations, foundation grants and gifts of medical supplies comprise more than 90% of their budgets — and where virtually all of the medical and dental staffs are working as volunteers, said Ann Heler of Ferndale, board president of Free Clinics of Michigan.
“We couldn’t possibly do this without the doctors, dentists, nurses and so many others who give their time to us,” Heler said. This fall, the free clinics might soon get busier, as clinic directors await word as to whether they’ll be needed to care for refugees from Afghanistan.
“Our clinics are all on the medical resource list for these refugees,” Heler said. To Michigan agencies in charge of the Afghan immigrants, the state’s free clinics “have all said, ‘Whatever you need, we’ll help,'” Heler said. But the new funding was unrelated to the arrival of the refugees, she said.
“We heard it was coming but, until something happens, you’re never really sure,” Heler said.
The average emergency room visit nationwide in 2021 was expected to cost $1,917, according to the Health Care Cost Institute, which is affiliated with 12 major academic medical centers, including the University of Michigan. Considering that the typical free clinic in Michigan had about 2,400 patient visits last year, that’s a lot of likely savings on emergency room fees that hospitals would’ve charged to the state’s Medicaid system or other sources funded by taxpayer dollars, according to the university experts.
Michigan’s free clinics have been essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospitals continue to be jammed with COVID-19 patients, and when anyone spending time in an ER risks being infected. But with or without the pandemic, the clinics serve critical needs among low- and no-income Michiganders, said state Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield. Gaps in coverage remain for tens of thousands of state residents, even those covered under the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare), Moss said.
“These clinics fill in these gaps, and they do it right in the neighborhood,” Moss said. Last year, he emceed the annual fundraising auction for the free clinic in Ferndale, FernCare, from a virtual auction site inside the Pleasant Ridge Community Center — wearing a suitcoat and pajama bottoms, all visible to the online audience, in a spoof of virtual meetings. This year, FernCare’s fundraiser was canceled, but the hope is to have an in-person banquet on March 1, 2022, FernCare Executive Director Dan Martin said.
Earlier this month, at the free Dr. Gary Burnstein Community Health Clinic in Pontiac, Ruth Bourseleth, 45, of White Lake Township, said she was grateful to get a checkup and prescription she needed at no cost. While she was there, Bourseleth, who works at a furniture store, also received a COVID-19 booster shot.
“I wasn’t expecting to get this, but they suggested it, so I thought, why not?” she said. Bourseleth said her teenage son and 75-year-old mother live with her, and her employer’s insurance doesn’t cover many of the family’s health care needs. Because Bourseleth has diabetes, she qualified for the booster vaccination, the clinic’s vaccination staff said.
In the lobby is a large portrait of the smiling, mustachioed Burnstein, a cardiologist who began volunteering at a homeless shelter in Pontiac “and realized there was a big need” for free care, with no religious or other strings attached, said Paula Brown, the clinic’s development director. Burnstein died in 2003, but his friends, family members and people in the community “honored his dream of providing care to the uninsured” by establishing the clinic that’s named after him, according to the clinic’s website.
A key supporter of the clinic is Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, along with money raised from an annual event called Esteemed Women of Michigan, its website says. Volunteers roam the hallways in white lab coats while others work in the clinic’s pharmacy. Under the supervision of a pharmacist last week were three student volunteers — two headed for medical school, one taking Oakland University’s advanced physician assistant program. A few steps away stood a tall, white-haired dentist about to perform an advanced dental procedure.
“COVID forced me to retire, but now I want to go back to work and this is perfect,” said Dr. Dennis Aylward, of Beverly Hills, who volunteers at the clinic one day a week.
“I can do dentistry and not have the pressure of a private practice. Patients here really appreciate what we’re doing — makes me feel good,” he said.
Besides the Burnstein site in Pontiac and FernCare in Ferndale, Oakland County also is home a free clinic in Southfield. Detroit has several, including the St. Francis Cabrini Medical Clinic in Corktown, whose website calls it “the oldest free clinic in the nation.” Highland Park is the location of the SAY Detroit free clinic founded by Free Press sports columnist Mitch Albom.
On Woodward Avenue just south of downtown Pontiac, the Burnstein clinic is housed in a fully renovated former machine shop that was donated to the agency, Executive Director Justin Brox said. There’s plenty of bad news these days, which can turn anyone into a dour pessimist, Brox said.
“But I work with a whole bunch of people who knock themselves out to help total strangers in very important ways, and they do this for no money, and they do it happily.
“That makes me feel pretty darned good about my job,” he said.
Contact Bill Laitner: firstname.lastname@example.org