Commentary: Grass-roots health care

May 11, 2012

Nobody would dispute that health care is one of the biggest issues facing this nation. And virtually everyone, regardless of their politics, is waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Next month, the nation’s highest court will announce its decision on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Congress passed two years ago.

Their decision will have a major impact on this nation. But in Ferndale, a small, charming, quirky, and largely working class Detroit suburb, a tiny group hasn’t been waiting.

They’ve been working their fingers off establishing a free clinic for those who lack any health care at all. “You wouldn’t believe the need,” Ann Heler told me. She is the chairman of the board of FernCare Free Clinic, which opened less than two years ago, and established a permanent location in a renovated warehouse last fall. Ann -- everybody calls her Ann -- is a white-haired, blue-eyed dynamo, who always goes a million miles a minute.

Five years ago, after a successful campaign to get Ferndale to pass a human rights ordinance, Ann Heler and a few friends were wondering if the city needed a free medical clinic, and what it would take to establish one. They soon found out that such a clinic was more than needed, even before the Great Recession wiped out many people’s health care. But what would starting one take?

The answer turned out to be three years of intense work, surveying the need, applying for grants, raising $160,000 in mainly five and ten-dollar donations.

They got a credit union to rent them an unused building, and scored a federal grant to help them renovate it into a clinic.

FernCare’s unpaid board wanted to make sure they did everything right. They found more than 20 doctors of all kinds who would volunteer their services a few hours a month. They found nurses and physicians’ assistants who would do the same; pharmacists and pharmacy techs. From the moment they opened their doors, they’ve been swamped. They treat only adults without health insurance.

They don’t treat children, or those eligible for Medicaid. They send the critical ones to emergency rooms, and those with STDs to the health department. But they never run out of patients. People with hypertension and high cholesterol; with diabetes and thyroid problems; depression and asthma.

FernCare is usually only open twice a month, on the first and third Saturdays, from 9:00a.m. to noon. Sometimes, Thursdays evenings as well. You can find all the details on the web at www.ferncare.org. There is always a waiting list.

Nor do they limit their help to Ferndale residents. People have come from more than 40 towns; the closest similar clinics are 12 miles away. Ann Heler wishes more communities would copy what they’ve done. FernCare is eager to share what they know.

FernCare’s leaders hope President Obama’s health care plan survives. But even if it does, Heler noted, there will still be uninsured. At 69 she would love to see a day when FernCare closes down because it isn’t needed anymore.

And she knows that’s extremely unlikely. She and her friends  saw a huge problem, tackled it, and are making a difference.

If that’s not being a role model, I don’t know what is.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Political Analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.