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Souring Economy Spurs a Surge at Free Clinics

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By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

At the Arlington Free Clinic, applications to see a doctor have more than doubled in a year. In Reston, a similar clinic has seen 40 percent more patients in 10 months.

Clinics across the region report similar increases, and the trend is expected to continue in the worsening economy.

In an effort to help expand such services, Dominion Resources donated $1 million yesterday to more than 100 free clinics nationwide, including about three dozen in Virginia and one in Maryland. The money will allow the clinics, which are staffed almost entirely by volunteers, to serve more people at a time when the number of uninsured nationwide is expected to increase by 30 percent.

"The current economic times have produced hardships not seen in several generations," said Thomas F. Farrell II, chairman, president and chief executive of Dominion. "We want to do our part to make sure medical services are available to those who are uninsured or can't afford to see a doctor."

Free clinics provide services to people who can't afford insurance or don't qualify for government health programs. They rely largely on donations and volunteer medical staff to care for 4 million patients a year, said Nicole Lamoureux, executive director of the National Association of Free Clinics.

Eligible patients, who generally make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level ($44,000 for a family of four), pay only a yearly membership fee. Patients in Arlington, for instance, pay $15 annually and a small co-payment for their medications.

As the economy slumped last year, the percentage of U.S. residents who reported having trouble paying for health care or prescriptions during the previous 12 months rose from 18 percent in January 2008 to 21 percent in December, according to a Gallup poll released earlier this year. Each percentage point change represents about 2.2 million people.

The Arlington clinic has seen a 164 percent increase in people seeking its services over last year. Staff members hold a monthly lottery to determine which applicants will get one of about 40 slots that open up every 30 days.

In many cases, experts said, the increases at free clinics nationwide were driven by people whose incomes had been cut, making them eligible for the services.

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