Coronavirus – A Perfect Storm for the Medically Underserved

The Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) has shed a bright light on the shortcomings of the United States health care system.  When an epidemic occurs and communities are trying to contain the spread of the disease, it suddenly becomes crystal clear how important having accessible, affordable health care for all people is.

There are approximately 28 million uninsured people in the U.S.  Out of this number, about 2 million people rely on Free and Charitable Clinics and Pharmacies across the nation for health care.  These people have nowhere else to turn.  If they don’t go to our clinics, they go without care until their health worsens, and they turn to hospital emergency departments.

There are several states that have pushed health insurance companies to waive the fee for the coronavirus test.  This is a great start.  But this is for people who have health insurance.  What about those that do not?  And while this cost savings is helpful to make sure more people can get tested – what if it comes back positive?  The uninsured and underinsured are then facing the possibility of expensive treatment that they cannot afford.

A large majority of our patients have serious health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  They are among the most vulnerable groups when it comes to the seriousness of this virus.  They could end up in the hospital fighting for their lives.  And if they manage to survive the infection, they could then be facing the possibility of bankruptcy from medical bills.

On top of dealing with the expense of treatment if they contract the virus, a medically underserved person also faces the reality of not being able to work for several weeks.  Our patients are often called the working poor.  They work jobs in the food/restaurant industry, hotel/hospitality, many are musicians, artists, hairdressers, etc.  All of these industries are falling on hard times.  People aren’t traveling, they aren’t going out to eat, to concerts or to the salon.  The medically underserved often have hourly jobs that don’t offer benefits like health insurance and paid sick leave.  They don’t have the luxury of working from home or self-quarantining for several weeks.

On top of all of the issues facing our patients, there are also complications for our clinics.  How do they keep their patients and volunteers safe and continue the much-needed health care services they provide with such limited resources? They are struggling to find the necessary personal protection equipment that they need.  They utilize volunteers, many of whom are retired medical professionals – who are in the age group that is particularly vulnerable when it comes to the coronavirus.  They are hearing from experts that they should limit any potential exposure and consider self-quarantine.  But if they do that, what happens to the clinic patients?

On behalf of the 1,400 Free and Charitable Clinics and Pharmacies in our country, our 2 million patients, and our 110,000 volunteers, we ask policy makers to remember the uninsured and underinsured.  We urge the Administration and Congress to waive the testing fees for the uninsured patients in our country. As the Administration and Congress work on future emergency coronavirus disaster funding legislation, we urge them to make funding available to safety-net providers like Free and Charitable Clinics and Pharmacies who are on the frontlines providing access to health care. Finally, we urge manufacturers and corporate funders to continue to donate products and fund America’s Free and Charitable Clinics and Pharmacies so that we can continue to provide quality healthcare to the uninsured and underserved in communities across the country.