A 21st Century Journalism Project

A Helping Hand in Community Healthcare

In Organizations on May 10, 2012 at 2:56 pm

By: Sean Maiolo

Despite their often publicized faults and shortcomings, Americans take a lot of pride in, but rarely are credited for, their generosity and thousands charitable organizations. Nearly every issue in American society in every corner of the country features scores of volunteers and charities working tirelessly to lessen and eliminate its effects on their communities.

The struggling neighborhoods of Erie, Pa. are no different with hundreds of families and individuals in constant need of assistance as they wrestle with the many challenges of being working poor Americans.

Healthcare is one of the greatest difficulties the working poor face in Erie, often forced to take a backseat in favor of food, heating and other utilities.

Fortunately, some of Erie’s more fortunate and compassionate citizens recognize the importance in providing essential healthcare to the working poor and dedicate both time and money towards helping their neighbors in need.

For that reason, Drs. Vincent Jenco and Henry Karpinski opened St. Paul’s Neighborhood Free Clinic in 1993 in the basement of St. Paul’s church in Erie’s Little Italy district.

Their mission was simple: To provide the region’s less fortunate with basic medical and dental care at no cost to the patients.

The need St. Paul’s fills for the Erie community became apparent soon after they first opened their doors. In only a few years’ time, the number of patient outgrew the capacity of their facility, forcing the clinic to relocate to a new building across the street from the church where they remain today.

Clinic director Lisa Kelleher, who’s been with St. Paul’s since they first opened their doors, estimates that they serve about 1,100 patients annually. While their services, consisting only of routine checkups and dental appointments, might seem rather trivial, without their assistance those 1,100 people would otherwise receive nothing in the way of healthcare, even such basic services, because they simply could not afford it.

Many of those that utilize St. Paul’s fit into the category of working poor, a group that often gets overlooked in the eyes of government aid agencies and the working class. Because they take pride in working as opposed to welfare, they lose out on things like Medicare and Medicaid even though they do not make enough to afford or are not offered health benefits through their jobs.

“(The clinic started) because of the people that fell between the cracks,” Kelleher said. “The people that we’re seeing here are typically the working poor so that’s typically who our target audience is that we’re seeing here at the clinic…We are allowing the burden to be released from the patient so that they can provide food for their family, that they can have the utilities in their household so that the burden of the medical care and their medical costs are relieved of them.”

Neutralizing those costs benefits not only the patients but the entire Erie community as well. Hospital emergency rooms are really the only option for uninsured Americans to receive any kind of healthcare because they cannot turn away patients. However, the ER is also one of the most expensive options for people in need of care as evidenced by the high co-pays that insured Americans pay.

But because the working poor often have nowhere else to turn, ERs nationwide become backed up with patients who might need something as simple as penicillin. The hospitals often struggle to recuperate the money from those bills because those that incur them cannot afford to pay which can put a major dent in their budgets. The clinic helps alleviate some of those potential financial woes.

Except for Kelleher, everyone who works at the clinic is a volunteer, including the doctors and dentists who see the patients. That kindness and commitment helps St. Paul’s keep their own costs down, but given the industry in which they work, money can still play a role in their operations.

“In order for us to see a patient here at the clinic, we have to get money because there’s not a fee for service so that’s always a task for us,” she said. “It’s an ongoing thing. In this day and age where the economy is as it is, donations are what they are, so that becomes an ongoing task.”

Their funding comes from grant writing and private donations. The Erie Department of Economic and Community Development plays a large role in making sure the necessary grant money flows to deserving foundations like St. Paul’s Neighborhood Clinic.

“It is a competitive application process,” said department director Brenda Sandberg. “The Community Development Block Grant is a federal program in which the clientele to be served needs to be of low or moderate income, which they most certainly qualify for. Through the Community Development Block Grant allocation, we have for many years provided roughly $10,000 in funding to St. Paul’s.”

The clinic provides the department with numbers annually to ensure that that funding stream remains constant. Those numbers help gauge not only the legitimacy of St. Paul’s but also how crucial a role they serve in the Erie community.

Without those numbers “they wouldn’t be eligible for funding,” Sandberg said. “And obviously because we’ve been funding them consistently since at least ’99 if not prior, they have always met our expectations.”

During the last five years (2006-2010), St. Paul’s served nearly 1,500 new patients on top of those that come in on a more regular basis. As significant as those numbers might be, however, the true impact of St. Paul’s importance in Erie cannot be gauged by statistics alone. Sandberg reiterated that the impact on hospitals in the community would be among the non-statistic backed benefits of the clinic.

“The fact that, obviously with it being a free clinic, that not only is it a benefit to the individuals that require that, but it’s also a benefit to our local hospitals because those individuals might seek emergency care when it may or may not be appropriate, costing thousands and thousands of dollars, which is something that’s almost not measurable,” she said.

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