WASHINGTON – At Cabrini Clinic in the Corktown neighborhood of Detroit, “every week is Cover the Uninsured Week,” says Mercy Sister Mary Ellen Howard, who has directed the free clinic for more than a dozen years.
In a city with some 200,000 uninsured adults, the clinic – formally known as the St. Frances Cabrini Clinic of Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church – provides medical care, prescription drug assistance and mental health services to about 150 people a week, completely free of charge.
“We’re not billing anybody,” Sister Mary Ellen told Catholic News Service. “If you’ve got Medicaid, you’ve got options” that those without any health coverage do not have, she added.
But Sister Mary Ellen would like everyone to have more health care options and so she joined an unlikely coalition of union members, small-business owners, insurers, medical professionals and religious leaders at one of hundreds of events around the country marking the fifth annual Cover the Uninsured Week April 23-29.
Sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and supported by a variety of national organizations, including the Catholic Health Association, the week is aimed at raising awareness about the nearly 46 million uninsured Americans and mobilizing a commitment to solve the problem.
In a joint letter urging all U.S. bishops to participate in activities marking the week, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Policy, and Sister Carol Keehan, a Daughter of Charity who is CHA president and CEO, said, “We cannot afford to remain silent while quality, affordable health care is not a reality for everyone in the country.”
“A problem of this magnitude and moral urgency requires the leadership of the Catholic community as we work to address this crisis with compassion and a commitment to justice,” they added in the March 29 letter.
Bishop DiMarzio heads the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. In the borough of Brooklyn alone, more than 100 Cover the Uninsured Week events were scheduled.
Catholic organizations found a variety of ways to join in, both before and during the week:
– A presentation in Spanish at St. Columba Catholic Church in Dothan, Ala., April 13 targeted volunteer Hispanic leaders and offered information on eligibility requirements and benefits of three health care coverage programs available for children in Alabama.
– St. Joseph Parish in Bardstown, Ky., hosted an April 17 community forum on state health care reform. The forum, sponsored by the parish social ministry department at Catholic Charities of Louisville, Ky., was one of 60 such events across Kentucky.
– At the 1,700-family St. Columbkill Catholic Church in Boyertown, Pa., informational tables, staffed by nurses who could answer questions and hand out informational brochures, were to be set up following Masses April 28 and 29.
In Michigan, activities related to Covering the Uninsured Week included a community forum at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, dozens of health fairs and enrollment sessions, an uninsured awareness walk sponsored by St. Joseph Health System in Tawas City, a smattering of campus events and seminars for small businesses, and several events like the April 26 policy forum that included Sister Mary Ellen.
The former hospital CEO, who decided at age 50 that she wanted to return to direct patient care, can point with pride to the assistance given to an estimated 2,000 patients in some 6,000 clinic visits each year.
The 57-year-old Cabrini Clinic, believed to be the oldest free c
linic in the nation, operates with a network of volunteer health care professionals and runs a prescription assistance program that leverages a budget of about $60,000 a year into $3 million in drugs for patients, through the indigent drug programs run by leading pharmaceutical companies.
But it isn’t easy. Sister Mary Ellen tells the story of a 39-year-old mother of four who arrived at the clinic with a diagnosis of stage-three cancer and was not only uninsured but undocumented and unable to speak English.
Cabrini Clinic does not provide cancer treatment or surgery, but “everyone who’s uninsured gets sent to Cabrini,” the nun said. “So you get on the phone and start begging.”
Eventually Sister Mary Ellen found a hospital willing to take the patient and a surgeon willing to perform the surgery – both for free. “But I cannot tell you how long it took” to meet the needs of just this one patient, the nun added.
Currently Cabrini Clinic is closed to new patients and will probably remain that way at least until August. “Most other free clinics (in Detroit) are in the same situation,” Sister Mary Ellen said. “So where are these people going?”
The Mercy nun admitted with a sigh that she is no longer enthusiastic about Cover the Uninsured Week events that involve talking about possible solutions.
“I’m sick of this, I’m tired of it,” she said. “We’ve got to get to the point where we move beyond talking to doing something.”