By John Finnerty
Daily Item Harrisburg Bureau
Gov. Tom Corbett has signed into law a bill that would provide $4 million in grants for community health clinics with at least 70 percent of that money directed toward the state’s smallest counties.
The money is intended to help efforts like A Community Clinic in Sunbury, run by Dr. John Pagana. The clinic’s $300,000-a-year budget is covered entirely by donations, while the time and expertise of Pagana and his fellow doctors are provided at no cost.
State Sen. John Gordner, R-27 of Berwick, said he supported the legislation precisely because it is designed to help clinics like the one in Sunbury and a similar one in Mifflinville.
Act 10 of 2013 creates the Community-Based Health Care Program in the Department of Health to provide grants to community-based health care clinics in Pennsylvania. Corbett pledged a $4 million appropriation for the program in his 2013-14 proposed budget.
The free clinics must share the funding with similar ventures, but the law only allows 30 percent of the new spending to go to the commonwealth’s five biggest counties: Philadelphia, Allegheny, Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks.
But, Peggy Dator, executive director of the Free Clinic Association of Pennsylvania, said she fears little of the new funding will make its way to clinics like the one in Sunbury.
The money is supposed to pay for expanding services, so it may not aid clinics that just need help staying afloat, Dator said. There are about 50 free clinics in Pennsylvania, she said.
In most cases, they are small efforts, sometimes started as church ministries. Run by donations to help their neediest neighbors, these groups don’t have the time or expertise to compete with other health care organizations in getting grants, she said.
Hospital-based clinics and other health centers also will be eligible for a share of the money.
Pagana works at Sunbury’s clinic at least 20 hours a week “to give back to the community,” he said.
Otherwise, the clinic survives thanks to donations from local foundations, from nearby hospitals and just from community support, he said. A Community Clinic has used state funding in the past to pay for diabetic education and treatment, Pagana said.
The hospitals are glad to help because the clinic keeps people from showing up in the emergency room, he said.
Pagana described his typical patient as a young woman with small children who is working full-time in a low-paying job.
“I admire these people because they are trying to work, but they can’t afford health insurance,” Pagana said. “That’s where our clinic works best.”
Even something as simple as an X-ray can be an overwhelming burden.
“If she needs an X-ray, she may not be able to eat for three weeks,” Pagana said. “That’s the sadness of the situation.”
In addition to the free clinics, the state is served by 47 organizations that operate 250 federally qualified health centers. The free clinics target those without insurance. The health centers offer essentially the same type of service, but they accept Medicare and Medicaid.
Together, the two types of clinics form the safety net of medical care for the poor, according to Jim Willshier, director of policy and partnership at the Pennsylvania Association of Community Health Centers.
Exactly how the new money will trickle into the system depends on how the state agencies craft the grant program.
“It will be positive,” Willshier said.
The legislation requires that the clinics provide matching funding, so as seed money to help support local donations, the new government dollars “can break a lot of ground,” he said.