Over the past several months, the face of health care reform has increasingly belonged to pundits, lobbyists, and members of Congress. After the Senate Finance committee's approval of health care reform legislation yesterday, the front pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal featured prominent pictures of committee members Senators Max Baucus and Olympia Snowe. As the debate now enters its next contentious phase, we need to focus on the faces that are desperate for help: the 46 million uninsured Americans.
Who exactly are these uninsured people we keep hearing about? They're not what many people expect. The vast majority of the uninsured -- 81 percent -- come from working families with low incomes. Median net worth (assets minus debts) of the uninsured is zero, so there's no safety net to pay for unexpected medical costs. Because Medicare insures all but 600,000 of the elderly, most of the uninsured (45.7 million) are under age 65. The Kaiser Family Foundation has provided us with some insight with "The Uninsured: A Primer."
In today's episode of the Dr. Oz Show, Dr. Mehmet Oz puts a face on the uninsured. He traveled to Houston and, with the help of 700 volunteers and the National Association of Free Clinics, staged a free clinic that saw nearly 2,000 uninsured patients in a single day. People who had felt invisible were blown away to suddenly find themselves the focus of a well-organized health care initiative.
Founded in 1999, the National Association of Free Clinics is a wonderful resource that was a complete surprise to me. Nicole D. Lamoureux, its national director, told me NAFC is a member organization for the nation's 1,200 free health clinics, which come in all shapes and sizes and use different models and have a variety of funding streams. At their foundation are an astounding six million volunteers, including doctors, nurses, and administrative staff.
Free clinics saw four million patients in 2008 and are on track to see eight million this year -- even though funding and donations are down 20 percent. With little to no state or federal funding, they are financed by foundations, grants and donations. With the economic downturn, some retired volunteers have had to return to paid work, leaving clinics understaffed. There are no provisions in the health care reform bill regarding free clinics and they received no money from the stimulus package. Eighty-three percent of patients going to free clinics come from working households. Forty-four percent of free clinics operate on a budget of less than $100,000.
As I watched the taping of the Dr. Oz Show, some of the stories absolutely took my breath away: a middle-aged man who helplessly watched a tiny lip blister mushroom into a large malignant tumor; a woman who lost a breast to cancer and wants to feel whole again; a 14-month old infant with a hole in her heart and desperate parents with no insurance. One of the patients was a man with rectal bleeding who had a six-figure income until he lost his job and insurance last December. Unable to afford medical care, he put off any evaluation until Dr. Oz flew him to New York so I could perform a consultation and colonoscopy. His story is the focus of this week's CBS Doc Dot Com. See what happened below:
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more