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Washington, DC Free Health Clinic Draws Huge Crowd

Washington DC residents line up to get access to a rare free health clinic which offers a wide range of treatment options
Washington DC residents line up to get access to a rare free health clinic which offers a wide range of treatment options

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Earlier this year, President Obama signed into law a long-awaited reform of health care in America. It's designed to provide medical insurance to tens of millions of Americans who can't afford it. But the US is still far from having universal health care, and even this reform is facing legal challenges.

At this Washington D.C. clinic, long line forms even before the doors open.

Jacqueline Nelson and her husband Cleveland wait patiently. Finally, they're given a warm welcome and paperwork to fill out.

Cleveland has health insurance because he served in the U.S. Marines. But Jacqueline has no coverage even though she has a job at a nursery school. Despite the risk, she has not bought insurance, because of it's so expensive.

"It's scary," she said.  "Just try to eat right and do right, and try to be your own doctor until you see you can't do it yourself."

But it hasn't worked. She's been going to a doctor who says she may need thyroid surgery, which can cost thousands of dollars.  So came to this clinic to get a second opinion, for free.

For one day, this convention center is the largest doctor's office in the country.

Nearly 2,000 people are offered a range of treatments, short of surgery.  The clinic is funded by private donations, and the doctors and non-medical staff are working without pay.

"This shows the best and worst of America, all in one location. The best is the thousand volunteers that are coming here.  And the heartache is those patients that have to come to a convention center to get the health care that they need," said Nicole Lamoureux who heads the National Association of Free Clinics.

Benito Diaz hasn't been to a doctor in four years despite many ailments.

"First of all I have this stomach pain that's been recurring since the beginning of the year or last year. This pain in my wrist, I don't know if it's carpal tunnel or what. And then I have this growth here on my chest," said Diaz.

To him, the clinic is a blessing.

"I mean, it's a godsend, you can say," added Diaz.

He hopes he will qualify for government subsidized insurance under the health reform law.  

"At the same time, you have to worry what happens when [the election in] November  comes, if the reactionary forces get the upper hand, and we're going to be back to square one, or less than that," said Diaz.

If the Republicans win in November's mid-term elections, patients fear it could endanger the reform that became law last March.

And in addition to these protests against the reform, twenty states are mounting a legal challenge.

So at least for the time being, free clinics like this one will remain the closest thing America has to universal health care.


Jerome Socolovsky

Jerome Socolovsky is the award-winning religion correspondent for the Voice of America, based in Washington. He reports on the rapidly changing faith landscape of the United States, including interfaith issues, secularization and non-affiliation trends and the growth of immigrant congregations.

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