Bonnie Wilcox lost her job at a veterinary hospital in Colorado in November. Then Wilcox’s husband lost his job as well, leaving the couple without health insurance.
And then Bonnie had an accident and broke her ankle and foot in three places, requiring surgery. They had to sell their home and move back to Connecticut to pay her medical bills.
“I had to have three surgeries to have them pinned and plated,” said Wilcox.
For Wilcox, 48, of Waterford, and the more than 1,000 people who attended the free clinic Wednesday at the Connecticut Convention Center, it was their first chance in months to see a doctor.
Adam Youngblood, 27, from Wallingford, said he hasn’t seen a doctor in about a year and hasn’t had insurance since he attended college two years ago. Youngblood also is out of work. “I’m on a job hunt right now.”
He came in hopes of getting a free H1N1 vaccine. “I just wanted to see if I could get a free shot here today instead of going to (Walgreens) and paying $20,” said Youngblood.
The clinic occupied an entire exhibition hall at the convention center – 140,000 square feet. Volunteers wearing red shirts were supervised by “captains” in blue shirts. Directors from the National Association of Free Clinics, which organized the event, wore green shirts so that volunteers and captains would know who to approach with questions.
One captain with a megaphone called out medical file numbers to hundreds of patients waiting to be seen by either primary care doctors or specialists. The numbers were read off in short bursts and people didn’t appear to be left waiting too long.
“We had over 1,000 people pre-register. We’re taking walk-ins on a first-come-first-serve basis. We squeeze them in where we can,” said Kerry Thompson, senior director of public affairs for the National Association of Free Clinics.
By 1 p.m., the clinic had already begun registering the first group of walk-ins.
“We almost have 1,200 volunteers which is incredible,” said Thompson. “The state of Connecticut has really turned out.”
Many of those treated Wednesday had no health insurance at all. Some were out of work and some had to take the day off.
Diana Riley, 59, of Canton said she came because hasn’t had a physical in more than a year. “My boss told me about this and was willing to give me the time off.”
“I’m here because I have no insurance,” said Angel Fernandez, 34. “They say I make too much but it’s not enough. I get $1,200 a month from unemployment. When I was working I made $2,500. It’s not enough. I got my car insurance payment coming up but I have to wait two days for my check to come in.”
Harry Santoni, 61, of Meriden, who owns a small construction company said he got a hernia seven months ago and tried the emergency room. “I went to a couple of places and I can’t get help. I came to this hoping they could help me.”
“I can’t even sit down right now but I work everyday that I can,” said Santoni. “But there’s no work out there right now. There just isn’t.”
Natasha Bordon, 31, of Hartford, said the last time she saw a doctor was about a year ago. “I came because my voice is not here and I think I have a cold. Plus it’s free and I have no medical insurance.”
She said her company doesn’t offer her health insurance. “It’s a really small business and I work on commission,” she said.
“I think [the clinic is] great, in that a lot of us don’t have insurance,” Bordon said. “With them doing this, it’s a good opportunity to know what’s going on with me.”
The free clinic in Hartford is the fifth such clinic to be organized across the United States by the National Association of Free Clinics. Previous clinics were held in Houston, New Orleans, Little Rock, and Kansas City.
Dr. Craig Dietz, of the Kansas City Free Health Clinic in Missouri, said his job is to help local doctors who haven’t been involved in medical care on such a large scale before. “We’re giving people a chance to see a doctor or nurse. This is a giant emergency room in some sense. We have a lot of primary care doctors here today.”
Many of the people that will be served by the free clinic have multiple problems, Dietz said, adding that when “people don’t have health insurance they accumulate problems. They come here with not just one thing, but three or four things.”
The end result is that they find themselves in a “crisis situation.” Dietz points to an elderly woman being rolled out on a stretcher. “This lady has to go to the emergency room right now because her blood pressure is out of control.”
“Almost all of these patients,” Dietz said, “could have been taken care of with regular outpatient care. But there is not enough capacity in the system.”
The two state lawmakers that stopped by the clinic Wednesday said the situation highlights the need for health insurance reform.
“Today’s crowds make it obvious that we have to fix our broken health insurance system,” Rep. Steve Fontana of North Haven said.
“I greatly appreciate the tremendous generosity and hard work of the volunteers who made today’s event possible, but a free clinic once a year is not enough. We have to come up with a sustainable method of ensuring that everyone in this state has quality, affordable health insurance,” said Fontana, who co-chairs of the legislature’s Insurance and Real Estate Committee.
Rep. Besty Ritter, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Public Health Committee, echoed Fontana’s comments.
“It is impossible to leave this clinic without realizing how difficult health care has become for so many in Connecticut,” Ritter said.
Both Ritter and Fontana called on Congress to act quickly and pass the stalled health care bill.