Cape Cod Free Clinic

By: Emily Zeugner

(Listen to an audio version of this story).

About eight or nine percent of Massachusetts residents are uninsured, but on Cape Cod the number is much higher-because of the seasonal nature of work on the Cape, about 18 percent of Cape residents have no health insurance. The Cape Cod Free Clinic and Community Health Center was founded 7 years ago specifically to serve the uninsured. When it first opened, the clinic was staffed entirely by volunteer doctors and nurses who donated their time and expertise for free. Now, the clinic has expanded to include a small paid staff of doctors and nurses whose salaries come from donations and grants. Still, 125 of the nearly 200 people who work to keep the clinic open are volunteers.

Nurse: "You look great today. Must be nice weather."

When Louise Socarides's husband died 14 years ago, she says her life fell apart. She lost her house, she lost her companion, and she lost health insurance.

Now she's a frequent patient at the Cape Cod Free Clinic in Mashpee where twice a month nurse Melanie Kelly checks her blood pressure and asks about her health.

Nurse: "So what brings you in today?"

Louise Socarides: "My kidney's acting up. "

Nurse: "So how long has it been bothering you? "

Louise Socarides: "About a month"

Nurse: "A month, LOUISE!"

Louise Socarides: "I know, I thought it would get better, but it didn't. "

Now, at the age of sixty, Louise works as a cashier at Stop and Shop, a job that doesn 't give her health insurance. She says she has been coming to the clinic regularly for more than five years. She has high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.

Louise Socarides: " And they help me with all of it. A couple of years ago I got an ulcer on my foot. They could't get it to clear up, they sent me to a couple different doctors and they could"t get it to clear up. They finally sent me to the wound center in Sandwich and just like that they had it cleared. I never would of gone there on my own. Never would have thought of it. It was so sore I could barely walk on that foot. And standing all day as a cashier, you need your feet."

Melanie Kelly, a registered nurse, has been seeing patients like Louise for more than two years. Many have chronic diseases and their health been neglected because they don't have the money to go to the doctor.

Melanie Kelly: "People just let things slide because they can't pay for it. And then it is compounded. It's nice to be able to help somebody, and to see them come in in such a mess, and then get better. We see some real trainwrecks?.some are just going to be chronic anyway, but we give them the meds - blood pressure meds or cholesterol meds or whatever, and they seem to level out. I think that Louise has come a long way since she was first here. She looks great. "

Paula Schnepp is the director of the clinic. She says the clinic's 3,000 reflect the diversity of the people in need.

Paula Schnepp: "There are a lot of young people, 18-20s, who are uninsured. You know, they just got out of school but no job with insurance. People in their thirties, same situation, 40s and 50s - some people have insurance but gosh, there was a divorce. The husband had insurance. The wife does't have insurance. And in that new status she's an uninsured person. People go in and out of an insured status. And when they lose it they have a hard time getting it back."

The clinic provides a wide variety of medical services, including referrals to specialists and surgeons. They also dispense medications through donations and free samples from local doctors and hospitals. Dr. Asha Wallace is a volunteer doctor at the clinic. She retired from a family practice and moved to the Cape several years ago, and now sees patients on Tuesday afternoons. She says the clinic is uniquely suited to help patients who suffer from a number of different conditions, like a patient she saw a few weeks ago.

Dr Asha Wallace: "So many problems! She was depressed, she was worried about her partner, her parents. Multiple problems, it takes a long while to sort this out. I think the clinic is the ideal place for a complicated patient like this. Because a private- I was a solo practitioner for many years and someone like me would have found it difficult to care for a patient like this because they need so many services."

When an uninsured person gets hurt or sick, often the only alternative to the free clinic is a trip to the emergency room, something that can cost hundreds of dollars. Louise says not having insurance is a frightening feeling:

Louise Socarides:: "What if I end up in the hospital? How in the hell am I going to pay all the bills? Not on the 8 dollars an hour I make at the store. That doesn't help."

However, she says knowing the clinic is there and able to care for her is a comfort.

Louise Socarides: "I can't say enough about them, I could talk ten hours on how good the clinic is as far as I'm concerned. Being able to know that I can have medical help when I need it, to know that I have somebody that I can lean on if I have a problem."

The Cape Cod Free Clinic and Community Health Center has seen over 5,000 patients since it opened seven years ago. Recently the clinic expanded its mission to also take patients with limited insurance like MassHealth and Medicare.

Broadcast July 8, 2005

Emily Zeugner reports for the Cape and Islands NPR stations.

Cape Cod Free Clinic and Community Health Center
65C Town Hall Square
Falmouth, MA 02540

40 Steeple Street
Mashpee, MA 02649
Phone: 508-477-7090

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