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In Hartford, More Than 1,000 Receive Medical Help At Free Clinic

ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER

February 04, 2010

HARTFORD - The insurance capital of America played host Wednesday to the uninsured, more than 1,000 of whom filled the cavernous Connecticut Convention Center for the chance to see a doctor.

They got their vitals taken, their eyes examined, their health inspected by professionals inside convention booths draped with blue curtains for privacy.

Some got diagnoses. Some got referrals for follow-up care. Some got taken out on stretchers, their heartbeat or other indicators deemed too troublesome to wait.

"It's heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time," said Nicole Lamoureux, executive director of the National Association of Free Clinics, which ran the one-day clinic.

Heartwarming, she said, because 1,200 volunteers came to help. Heartbreaking because so many people needed a free clinic in a convention center to get a checkup.

The association has hosted similar events around the country. The idea is to give people without health insurance medical attention and connect them to a regular source of care.

Some of the patients had jobs but no health insurance. Some were out of work, like Judy Mercer of Ellington. Before she lost the health coverage from her former job at The Home Depot, Mercer asked her doctor to give her enough prescriptions to last through Christmas. Her medication is due to run out this month.

At the front of the area where she waited, a volunteer called out the next group of patients to be seen. Volunteers escorted patients through each step. There were H1N1 vaccines and HIV tests. Women got gynecological exams inside a mobile clinic (a converted bus). Doctors screened patients for glaucoma in an open area, while social workers and psychiatrists offered counseling behind curtains.

Patients praised the organization of the clinic and the volunteers, some of whom came from across the country.

Lamour Howell, a 62-year-old retired nurse from Windsor, came with pain in her foot so bad she had to stop dancing or wearing high heels. She'd had it for two years, and two doctors had been unable to find the cause. On Wednesday, a volunteer nurse offered a diagnosis (Morton's neuroma) and a solution (an anti-inflammatory).

"It was awesome," Howell said.

Dr. Ralph Freidin, a primary care doctor from Lexington, Mass., said the patients had the same conditions a similar slice of the population might, with one difference: Their cases were more severe.

Freidin said he was struck by the patients' lack of access to basic services like blood pressure screenings and eye exams, despite living in a region flush with medical centers boasting the latest medical technology.

"They really have been deprived of the tremendous advances we've seen in medicine over the past several decades," he said.

Dr. Bruce Gould, the clinic's medical director and also medical director of the Burgdorf Health Center in Hartford and the Hartford Health Department, said he wished that the people who opposed health reform would talk to the patients he saw Wednesday.

As he spoke, Gould, the associate dean for primary care at the UConn Health Center, was mulling a case. The woman's symptoms suggested coronary artery disease. She needed follow-up tests, he knew, tests that cost thousands of dollars.

Paramedics had a stretcher ready in case she needed to go to the emergency room.

The woman's case perplexed him. Gould could diagnose her and patients like her, tell them how to best treat their conditions. But what could he do for them long term if they lacked the money or insurance for the tests and treatment they needed?

"It reflects the fact that we have a broken health care system in this country," he said.

Across the room, by the clinic's exit, patients passed through a cluster of tables advertising local health centers, social service programs, and groups that might offer lasting help. Patients received a list of health care providers who could see them for free or on a sliding scale.

Bradford Howard Jr., outreach director at Hartford's Charter Oak Health Center, had staff members on call back at the health center. He would hand over his cellphone to anyone who didn't have a phone but wanted an appointment.

He instructed one man on where to go for help finding work. He was ready to dispense advice on other services too.

"What good is helping people out if it's a Band-Aid?" he asked. "What are they going to do after?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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