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Health clinics for the poor look to middle class for income

Clinics and hospitals that serve low-income people are holding candle-light vigils in Seattle, Yakima and Spokane this week to draw attention to proposed budget cuts they call devastating. After education, the second biggest slice of the state budget goes to health care, totaling about a third of the general fund.

Some community clinics are taking the desperate step of marketing themselves to people with private insurance. That's a big change for non-profits with a mission to serve the poor.

Community Health Centers that take federal funding must care for anyone who walks in the door, regardless of their ability to pay.

They've depended almost entirely on reimbursements from federal and state governments. But, if they can get a higher percentage of paying clients, they say, it will partially subsidize care for those who can’t pay.

Doing more with less

Teresita Batayola, director of Seattle’s International Community Health Services, says her staff is trying to accommodate more people during the down economy:

"So we are seeing more and more patients, but they will have to wait longer for an appointment, and they will wait longer in reception room. And then some of them cannot be accommodated, so they end up in the emergency room."

The delays are getting worse, because of layoffs and furloughs at her clinic, due to the last round of budget cuts. Two other health centers have closed clinics this year.

Pushing for taxes

Hospitals worry about that potential surge of uninsured people at their emergency rooms.  So, they're joining with community clinics to lobby against state budget cuts. 

Governor Chris Gregoire has said, through her budget, health subsidies for the poor, for drug addicts, for the disabled and others are too expensive to maintain.

The community health clinics are urging lawmakers to raise taxes – even as they look for other ways to boost revenues.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.