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Free Clinics Help Make Up For Lack Of Medicaid Expansion

Medicaid expansion could cover more than 700,000 people in the state.

Health care is one of the most important things for Floridians this election. That’s according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll. While candidates debate whose plan is best, free clinics serve many of Florida’s uninsured.

“Welcome to Shepherd’s Hope. This is Catherine. ”

The phones have been ringing all morning at Shepherd’s Hope, even though the clinic doesn’t open until 6 o’clock in the evening.

“The demand has just continued to rise and we struggle," said Shepherd's Hope CEO Marni Stahlman. "I won’t deny that the fact is that we don’t have enough volunteers.”

Stahlman says this is their new normal. Shepherd’s Hope serves uninsured patients in Orange and Seminole Counties. And the number keeps rising. This year alone they served more than 20,000 patients. And they’re still not meeting the demand.

“So far through this year we’ve had to turn away a total of 900 patients," she said. "And that’s a painful day for us. A really painful day because it could be that that’s a patient that has cancer.”

When patients are turned away they end up in the emergency room. That’s where Dr. Jamaal McLeod sees them when he’s not volunteering at Shepherd’s Hope.

“And you know when that happens and you have people that are coming in for colds and things that aren’t emergencies," McLeod said. "Then that takes away from evacs able to get to the hospital. Because if they’re bringing someone with a cold-we’re inundated with a certain number of patients.”

About 200,000 patients relied on clinics like Shepherd’s Hope around the state last year according to the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics.

Joan Alker with Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families says this isn’t a long-term solution.

“This is a particularly difficult situation," Alker said. "For folks living in rural areas. Rural areas really have greater provider shortages and there aren’t a lot of options for folks there if they’re uninsured.”

Alker estimates last yearabout 12.9 percent of Florida’s population was uninsured. That’s more than 2.6 million people.

Health care has become a talking point on the campaign trail for both parties. The Democrat in the gubernatorial race, Andrew Gillum, says he wants to get more people covered by expanding Medicaid. Medicaid expansion would cover almost 700,000 more Floridians. But this hasn’t happened under Republican Governor Rick Scott. Scott says he’s concerned the federal government will renege on their end of the deal to fund 90 percent of the program.

“It is a reasonable fear given what the federal government and the Trump administration is saying,”  economic analyst Hank Fishkind said. 

“Just the other day Mitch McConnell came out and said the problem with our deficit is we’re spending on entitlements programs that would include healthcare programs,” he said.

Fishkind says Medicaid expansion would increase costs in the beginning, but in the long run it would save taxpayers money.

“It would improve health care significantly in the state of Florida and it would reduce many healthcare costs associated with people going to the emergency rooms,” he said.

Even if Gillum’s elected, he’ll get push back from the Republican legislature, who like Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, are opposed to Medicaid expansion. DeSantis says he wants to offer patients more plans to choose from. But economic Fishkind says some of those plans could be out of reach.

“Even if there are more plans if they don’t have the funds to buy the health care, then that really doesn’t do anything,” he said.

Back at Shepherd’s Hope, patient Tonya Ingram says this clinic has been a lifesaver.

“If it weren’t for my friends and family, I would be living in a shelter home," she said. "Or living out of my car.”

And Ingram’s not the only one. There’s a line of patients that starts outside the clinic at noon. They’ll be waiting in 90-degree heat for hours just to make sure they get a spot. And that’s why Shepherd's Hope  Stahlman says the number one item they need right now isn’t medical equipment or supplies.

“You know what is our number one needed for supplies?" she asked. "Water.”