The statistic is startling – Ellis County is listed among the 200 poorest counties in the United States.

What’s not surprising is the correlation between lower economic status and being uninsured, said Hope Clinic director Mackie Owens, who points out that uninsured doesn’t necessarily mean unemployed.

She cited national statistics that indicate eight out of 10 families without health insurance are hard working families that cannot afford the premiums. There are other statistics as well.

In Ellis County, 24.7 percent of the total population is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level – or an annual income of $41,000 for a family of four. Of the people in Ellis County whose incomes are at or below the 200 percent mark, 61.1 percent are uninsured.

An estimated 15 percent of the county’s total population is uninsured.

“When we began (Hope Clinic) eight years ago, we knew this was an issue the community needed to address,” Owens said.

There’s a price to be paid for not having insurance, said Owens, whose nonprofit agency serves uninsured people with incomes up to 150 percent of the federal poverty rate.

From 18,000 to 22,000 people die every year in the United States because they cannot afford health care or treatments, she said, citing statistics compiled by Cover the Uninsured, a national project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to tell someone is A) ‘you have cancer’ and B) ‘we don’t know where to send you for treatment,’ especially when I know we’re dealing with something that is treatable,” Owens said of the need for help for the uninsured. “And, yes, people do die for lack of treatment.”

Helping the uninsured

Hope Clinic provides primary health care on a sliding scale to uninsured Ellis County residents – an estimated 15 percent of the population. The agency has an annual budget of more than $500,000, with about 86 percent of funding going toward program services. More than 1,700 Ellis County residents are patients of Hope Clinic, which posted about 4,300 visits last year.

Many of the patients are treated for one or more of several prevalent diseases in Ellis County – cardiovascular disease, diabetes and or asthma.

“With the higher than average rates (for these diseases), a means for receiving primary medical care without insurance is a vital issue in our community,” Owens said. “We do primary care and, beyond that, we have to find somebody.”

A family practice doctor just joined the clinic’s staff, which includes two nurse’s aides, a billing clerk, a bilingual receptionist, office manager and Owens. A part-time gerontology nurse practitioner comes in on Fridays as does as a volunteer pediatrician.

“We still have volunteer doctors. Some see the patients at the their own clinic and some see them here,” Owens said, noting about 28 physicians offer services to the agency. “There are specialists as well as general practitioners who volunteer. We have a very good support system of medical providers.”

Through a contract for services with the county, the clinic also handles care for the indigent population. The county certifies a patient for the program based upon his or her income, with the clinic providing services and serving as case manager.

In an effort to promote awareness about the uninsured in Ellis County and the nation, Owens and her staff are participating in National Cover the Uninsured Week, recognized this year from April 27-May 3.

“We’re asking people to recognize that this is not just a national problem, but that it is a local problem as well,” she said. “People without insurance who go without care can have serious complications or die. If they use the emergency rooms for care because they don’t have insurance, that results in significant losses at both of our hospitals.”

Baylor Medical Center at Waxahachie is a frequent donor to the clinic in recognition of its efforts to serve the uninsured and, most recently, contributed $30,000 to the agency.

“That’s a lot. It’s a huge donation for us,” Owens said. “They’ve been very generous to us.”

Baylor and Hope Clinic’s relationship includes an agreement that the agency accept referrals and handle follow-ups with uninsured people who did use the emergency room.

“We’re trying to keep people from using the emergency room as their primary care,” Owens said.

Expansion of services

 Hope Clinic will have gained its certification to serve as a provider under the Medicaid and Medicare programs. The clinic already was accepted into incubator-site status and has since applied for a major grant that will provide $600,000 for the first three years. Renewing the certification and the funding should be a matter of routine once the initial requirements are met, with Owens saying the agency should be able to provide four times the care it does now with the increased funding. While continuing to serve as a primary care provider, Hope Clinic also would see a dramatic increase in the prenatal, mental health and dental services it offers.

A member of the National Association of Free Clinics and the Texas Association of Community Health Centers, Hope Clinic also provides wellness services such as educational programs on diabetes. With eight years of data, the agency has done or plans to do studies in such areas as domestic violence and the effectiveness of its wellness programs.

Part of the recent research and compilation of the agency’s data was done by social work intern Nikki Simpson, a student at Southwestern Assemblies of God University, who has helped Owens in applying for grants.

“I didn’t realize how many people in Ellis County are under the poverty level, under 200 percent of the poverty level,” Simpson said. “It’s been cool seeing how the needs are being met through the clinic – there’s a real need here.”

Upcoming benefit

Hope Clinic is among several nonprofit organizations participating in the annual Belk Charity Sale on Saturday, May 3. Customers can purchase a $5 ticket from Hope Clinic that will allow admittance to a special sale offering discounts from 20 to 60 percent off items in the department store. Tickets can be purchased at Hope Clinic, 411 E. Jefferson St., Waxahachie, by calling 972-923-2440 or by sending an e-mail to mackieo@sbcglobal.net.

The agency’s annual fundraiser, Seats of Hope, is set for Nov. 11 at the Waxahachie Civic Center, with Owens saying that any help – whether in cash or in-kind donations or through volunteering – is much appreciated.

“Certainly, we want people to contribute any way they can,” she said, noting particular needs at this time include the development of a Web site and some general maintenance work.

On the Internet

http://covertheuninsured.org

www.hrsa.gov

E-mail JoAnn at joann@wninews.com