Why Healthcare Reform Won't Eliminate the Demand for Free Clinics

October 12, 2013

Free health clinics will not only continue to see an increased demand for patients, but they might even take some from private practices.

There has been no shortage of headlines regarding the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and its impending implementation. Political pundits from both parties have debated whether or not the law will follow through on its promises of reduced healthcare costs and easier access to healthcare.

The bill's first test came on Oct. 1, when uninsured Americans could begin signing up for healthcare coverage through the government-subsidized private insurance exchange.

Are Free Health Clinics Still Necessary?

An overlooked topic so far in the healthcare debate is the need for free health clinics. In recent years, many health clinics in states such as California, Pennsylvania, and Georgia have struggled to keep up with the surge in new patients. These clinics cite loss of jobs that provided health insurance and rising healthcare costs as just a couple of reasons for the high demand. One of the main goals of the new law - reducing the number of uninsured Americans - should theoretically minimize the demand for free clinics. Providers at these clinics, however, don't anticipate a reduction in the demand for their services.

Michael Kloess, executive director of Our Lady of Hope Clinic in Madison, Wisc., recently told the Wisconsin State Journal that he expects the demand to remain high for his clinic's services. "There are still going to be those who would love to have insurance but won't be able to afford it, and there will be those who choose not to avail themselves of insurance, for whatever reason," Kloess said.

Nicole Lamoureux Busby, executive director of the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, also believes there will still be a need for free clinics post-ACA implementation. She notes that some groups will choose to remain uninsured, such as undocumented workers who are explicitly excluded from the reform law. Others might earn too much income to be exempt from the individual mandate but still not make enough to qualify for Medicaid. The

agrees, estimating that there will still be over 30 million uninsured Americans by the year 2023.

Can Free Clinics Continue to Meet the Demand?

As Jason Baisden, head of the North Carolina Association of Free Clinics, explained to North Carolina Health News, "The hardest thing we've had to deal with since passage of [the reform law] is a perception issue."

According to North Carolina Health News, free health clinics are concerned about being able to acquire funding after the law goes into full effect. The fear is that high-income donors, who currently provide the majority of funding for free health clinics, will assume that the new law has rendered free clinics obsolete and therefore choose to stop donating.

The publication suggests that since troubled clinics might be able to bill patients for some of their services now, these clinics will want to ensure that their regular patients keep coming back even after they have other healthcare options.

What Does All of This Mean?

Those physicians and private practice owners who've planned for an increase in new and prospective patients might have to rethink their marketing efforts. Free health clinics will not only continue to see considerable demand for their services, but in some cases they might even compete with private clinics in an effort to attract and retain patients.