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PORTLAND — The Rev. Ellen Schoepf, associate pastor of St. Ansgar Lutheran Church, is adamant in her determination to help the Portland Community Free Clinic.
“Quality health care is a right, not a privilege,” Schoepf said last month. “I see this as a major justice issue.”
Schoepf is now working to ensure the long-term sustainability of the clinic at 103 India St. as the president of the new Friends of the Portland Community Free Clinic.
“We want to have funding for a few years down the road,” Schoepf said. “We don’t want to be in a positions where we leave the clinic hanging.”
Housed in the former North School near the corner of Federal Street, the free clinic is part of the larger India Street Public Health Center, which includes an immunization and travel clinic, a walk-in clinic for detection and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, health care for HIV-positive patients, and the city needle exchange program.
Leslie Nicoll, the registered nurse who coordinates the free clinic, said it has provided care for about 500 adults annually, making between 1,600 and 1,700 visits for services. Eligible patients must be between ages 18 and 64.
“It’s nice to have a group we can turn to support and help,” she said of the Friends.
The Friends were established last summer as the clinic struggled to survive after the loss of $200,000 in annual assistance from Mercy Hospital in 2012. Private donations sustained the operation, but at about half the funding it had previously received.
The clinic is ineligible for federal funding because it provides free care, with volunteer caregivers coming from hospitals and offices throughout the Portland area. Mercy Hospital still provides lab work, and legal services are provided pro bono. The city does not provide financial assistance.
“The access we have to first-rate physicians is really quite remarkable,” Clinical Services Program Manager Caroline Teschke said.
The Friends achieved nonprofit status earlier this year, and Schoepf said there are plans for fundraisers. The more immediate focus is on finding grants and larger donations.
“It is a very active committee, especially the grant writing committee,” she said. “We need to find a couple of really good donors who will take the project on for a year or two, people who are committed to this sense of justice.”
Teschke said keeping the clinic open is critical because the patients receiving care likely cannot afford health exchange premiums in the Affordable Care Act, even with government subsidies, and remain ineligible for MaineCare coverage.
The state Legislature has been unable to sustain a veto of Gov. Paul LePage’s refusal to accept federal funding. LePage has objected to expanding the program because of expenses the state will incur in three years as federal subsidies are reduced.
Patients earning up to 250 percent of federal poverty level guidelines are eligible for free care. For a single person, that amounts to about $28,000 in income, or $13.50 per hour. The clinic does not provide pediatric or geriatric care, because those patients are covered by federal and state aid.
“We are the champions of the working poor,” Teschke said. “Let us continue our existence as long as we are needed and there is nothing else to fill the niche.”
The clinic operates on an annual $110,000 budget and is in its 21st year, seeing patients on an appointment basis in what Nicoll calls “a little rabbit warren of space.”
The clinic is open Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and from 9 a.m. to noon on Fridays.
Donations to Friends of the Portland Community Free Clinic can be sent to 10A Beach Street, No. 2, Portland, ME 04101.
The Portland Community Free Clinic provides care for adult patients unable to afford health insurance. It is housed at 103 India St., part of the India Street Public Health Center.
Leslie Nicoll, who coordinates services at the Portland Community Free Clinic, and city Clinical Services Program Manager Caroline Teshcke, say they welcome the fundraising assistance of the new Friends of the Portland Community Free Clinic. The clinic has a $110,000 annual budget and is not eligible for federal funding.