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July 27, 2009

My Turn: Health coverage is an urgent need


This week's "My turn" column is by Dr. Ben Friedell, medical director of the Oneonta Community Health Center and family physician at Oneonta Family Practice.

Thursday, July 30, marks the one-year anniversary of the opening of a free medical clinic for uninsured adults in the Oneonta area.

The Oneonta Community Health Center was created by a group of concerned citizens in response to the human tragedy of our friends and neighbors suffering from a lack of medical care because they do not have health insurance.

Since the opening of the center, we have been seeing from six-to-12 patients every Tuesday evening. Our experience has mirrored that of other free clinics around the country: We see people with both chronic and acute medical problems who have no insurance and cannot afford to be seen by a primary care physician.

These are adults who are self-employed, unemployed, between jobs, part-time workers or work for a small business that does not provide affordable health insurance as an employee benefit.

Contrary to what some believe, these are not wealthy people who choose not to purchase health insurance, nor are they shiftless slackers who do not want to work.

In my time at the clinic, I have seen a nurse's aide with severe asthma; an unemployed chef with an uncontrolled thyroid problem; and a hotel worker with limited vision from cataracts. These patients would not have otherwise received care, and they have been profoundly grateful for our services.

The OCHC exists because of the generous donation of services by many volunteers: medical providers (physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants); nurses; receptionists; screeners who review the patients' incomes to see if they are eligible for our services; members of the board of directors of our nonprofit corporation; Fox and Bassett hospitals; the building owner who donates the space for our clinic; and many others, right down to the woman who cleans our facility.

In addition, hundreds of local individuals and several foundations have donated money to help us provide these services.

As exciting as the success of this venture has been, it is only an emergency, stopgap measure and not a long-term solution to providing medical care to all Americans.

Our government must work out a comprehensive plan to make sure that all people in this country have some sort of health insurance so that they do not have to live in fear of financial ruin when they go to the doctor.

Right now, members of Congress are debating a variety of plans to provide universal health coverage for all of us. This is the first real opportunity for health care reform since the attempt by President Clinton in 1993.

With congressional mid-term elections coming in 2010 and another presidential election in 2012, politically this is the last chance for several years.

We all know a friend or family member who has no health insurance. There are at least 25,000 people in our four-county area who fit this description. And those of us with employer-based health insurance are just a layoff or disabling illness away from becoming uninsured.

So it is critically important to all of us that Congress pass a universal health coverage plan this year. I urge all of you reading this to sit down and write, call or e-mail your congressman and our U.S. senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, to let them know you want a bill passed this year.

President Obama has proposed a plan that will allow each of us to keep our private health insurance if we are happy with it, but it will also provide a "public option" of insurance for those who choose it.

While I am a strong supporter of a so-called single-payer plan, I recognize that such a plan does not have the votes to pass. But a public option is a "must-have" to accomplish real reform.

Whatever your opinion about the particulars of a health insurance reform plan, the most important thing is that some type of plan be passed this year.

Our fellow Americans without health insurance cannot wait several more years for change; current estimates are that 18,000 Americans die each year because of lack of medical insurance.

Let us come together, as we have as a people in previous times of crisis, and create a plan that includes every American.

All of us involved in this free clinic would love to close our doors when that day comes, as our services would no longer be needed.

To reach Dr. Friedell, call 432-1163.

To write for "My turn," contact Daily Star Publisher Tanya Shalor at tshalor@thedailystar.com or 432-1000, ext. 214.