While Senators Denounce Medicaid, The Uninsured Turn To Charity

The debate over health care reform often takes place in a haze of numbers, cost curves and acronyms. Lamar Alexander lifted the fog for a moment on the Senate floor Saturday evening as the third-ranking Republican lambasted the health care bill for opening up Medicaid to millions more Americans.

The plan, said the Senator from Tennessee, is "arrogant in its dumping of 15 million low-income Americans into a medical ghetto called Medicaid that none of us or any of our families would ever want to be a part of for our health care."

Of course, anybody would take the type of insurance available to a senator and his family over Medicaid. But Medicaid is still better than what's available to millions of Americans: nothing -- except the occasional charity treatment.

A few hours before Alexander's remarks, thousands of Arkansans convened at the Statehouse Convention Center for a mass free health clinic, the first of its kind in Little Rock. The clinic, organized by the National Association of Free Clinics, aimed to serve more than 1,225 Arkansans. As of 5:30 p.m. more than 800 people had been seen by nurses and doctors, according to Nicole Lamoreaux, executive director of the Association.

A majority of those that attended the clinic suffered from chronic conditions, said Kimberly Garner, a family medicine physician in North Little Rock who served as the event's medical director. The most striking thing to Dr. Garner was that many of the people who showed up at the clinic were working steady jobs -- they just couldn't afford health insurance.

"These are people with jobs and with families. They're in that tight squeeze between being unable to afford health insurance while not being eligible for government support."

Dr. Garner said one man who visited the clinic had recently received treatment at a local hospital for heart failure. He'd been told to see a cardiologist, but he didn't have insurance, so he couldn't. "He came here today, and we had to send him back to the hospital," she said.

This story is not uncommon in Little Rock. Curtis Williams, 54, registered for the clinic Saturday because he hasn't been to see a doctor in some time. His former employer relocated, and he lost his job and his health insurance along with it. "When my health insurance ran out, I was no longer able to see a doctor," he said. "I came here because it was free."

As of this writing, 63 percent of patients who came to the Little Rock clinic told volunteers that they do not see a doctor regularly. Thirteen percent of patients had not seen in a doctor in ten years.

"We're here to help," Ms. Lameoreaux said, "but that's heartbreaking."

The free clinic brought together more than 1,200 volunteers who attended to patients beginning at noon. "To have 1,200 volunteers come out on a Saturday to give their time is amazing," said Lamoreaux.

One of those volunteers was Arkansas Lt. Governor Bill Halter. "I saw a desire to have a clinic in Arkansas," he said. "We have 450,000 Arkansans currently without health insurance."

The politics of the event weighed heavily in Little Rock today as it had been reported that President Bill Clinton, in town to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his presidential library, would not attend the event.

"There are Democrats, Republicans, Independents and people disinterested in politics that are volunteering their time today," Mr. Halter said. "We've agreed not to talk about politics today."

M. Wali Shabazz, a volunteer from Little Rock and a Vietnam veteran, is one of those people. He voted for only the second time in his life in 2008 for Barack Obama. Before that, no candidate had received his vote since Shirley Chisolm appeared on the ballot for president, in 1972.

"I'm here because I fucked up in life," he said. "I'm trying to change it." Mr. Shabazz walked around the venue hall soliciting people to autograph his fire engine red C.A. R. E. volunteer T-shirt. "I plan to send this to Keith Olbermann to show him all the people that were here."

While the doors to the clinic are scheduled to close at 7:00 p.m., it is anticipated that hundreds of patients will receive care after that time. "We are who we are," Lamoreaux said. "If you're here, or if you show up a few minutes late with an appointment, we're going to see you."

After today, the National Association of Free Clinics heads to Kansas City, Missouri for a two-day event. In the meantime, Arkansans will be gearing up for a contentious health care debate in Washington, while trying to meet the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people without health insurance.

"After they leave here they are given information about the free clinics in Arkansas, about education and how to live healthier," Dr. Garner said.

Here's video of Lamar Alexander's remarks: