Unsung Hero: Peter McGuire, doctor on the house

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BRUNSWICK — The Vietnam War produced at least one good outcome; it was in Vietnam that Dr. Peter McGuire started doing free clinic work.

“I was in Vietnam in 1967, and I’d go out in the central highlands and run free clinics for the Vietnamese people,” McGuire said. “We were trying to win their hearts and minds.”

A graduate of Bowdoin College and the McGill University Medical School, McGuire had a successful medical practice in Brunswick for more than 30 years. As a member of the board of the Tedford Oasis Homeless Shelter (now the Tedford Shelter), he observed the need among the poor and uninsured to receive proper medical care.

He and two other doctors established a free medical clinic at the shelter on Tuesday nights in 1992, but the demand soon overtaxed the shelter’s space, and a separate clinic – the Oasis Health Network – was established in 1995.

The free medical clinic in Brunswick currently serves more than 1,500 people a year, and the numbers continue to rise. A free dental clinic in Bath, also overseen by the Oasis Health Network, serves more than 150 people a year.

To qualify, patients must be adults (18 years of age or older), come from families with incomes not exceeding 175 percent of the federal poverty level, have no insurance, and live in the Bath-Brunswick area.

In addition to a staff composed of two full-time positions and two part-time positions, more than 200 physicians and dentists volunteer their time and expertise to serve people in need of medical or dental care.

Maguire estimated that the Prescription Assistance Program, overseen by Oasis, saves clients more than $1 million a year in prescribed medications, by dealing with drug companies to obtain free drugs.

The Oasis Health Network receives no financial support from the state or federal government. Funding comes from an annual appeal, the United Way, churches, businesses, and foundations.

McGuire said he spends eight hours a week with Oasis (all volunteer), down from 20 to 30 hours a week since his “retirement” a dozen years ago. In addition to answering the need for free medical care, McGuire said he devotes his time to the effort because, “It’s a lot more fun than working to meet productivity goals and dealing with a multitude of insurance companies. We have time to listen to the patients and really get to know them.”

When asked about the state of health care in the United States today, Maguire minced no words:

“I’d like to be out of this free clinic business. We need to adopt a single-payer health-care system, an expanded form of Medicare. People say, ‘Let the free market take care of the problem,’ but what rock are they living under? The free market has had its chance and it hasn’t solved the problem.”

McGuire rattles off statistics to support his stance, too:

“About 56 percent of the members of the American Medical Association support a single-payer health system. … Physicians spend five hours a week, on average, trying to resolve issues with insurance companies, time that could be better spent serving patients. … Our car companies spend $1,000 per car to pay for health benefits, whereas Japanese companies pay $47 per car. … About 30 percent of our health-care dollars – which are the largest of any developed country in the world – go for profits and administrative costs for insurance companies, whereas only 3 to 5 percent of Medicare costs go to overhead. … Each year, about 18,000 Americans die because they couldn’t get timely health care.”

When McGuire talks about this critical issue, he does so calmly, never pounding the table, never raising his voice. Which isn’t surprising: he has had lots of experience over the years giving clear diagnoses, often to patients who, without his help, would not even have a doctor.

Sidebar Elements

Dr. Peter McGuire, founder of Oasis Health Network, a free health-care network in Brunswick. Using loaned space, volunteer staff and donated medications, Oasis doctors and staff see more than 1,500 people a year.

Unsung Heroes

One in a series of profiles by Brunswick writer David Treadwell about people who quietly contribute to the quality of life in greater Portland. Do you know an Unsung Hero? Tell us: heroes@theforecaster.net.