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Rising health care costs puts strain on residents, resources

Volunteers at Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids working to fill prescriptions.

The cycle of winter sickness carves its way through Cedar Rapids, unrelenting illnesses like influenza and bronchitis forcing the afflicted to stop by the local walk-in clinic or their primary care provider.

However, some simply can't afford to seek treatment for acute ailments, letting their bodies wage war and praying nature looks upon them favorably.

The co-pays and deductibles serving as a deterrent for medical help, those short-term sicknesses become long-term problems.

Fortunately, for those uninsured or struggling financially, Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids serves as a bridge, providing a bevvy of free services (medical, dental, vision and prescription).

The resources at the clinic's disposal aren't infinite.

Quite the contrary, CHFC relies on community support through donations of money and time.

During its peak in 2013, the clinic's robust volunteer staff of more than 600 doctors and nurses treated 13,000 unique individuals, providing more than 56,000 services.

An unsustainable number, according to Chief Operating Officer Jamie Henley, which has steadily dropped in years since, down to 4,500 yearly visitors.

With health care costs on the rise -- due primarily to an aging population requiring more treatment more frequently -- clinic staff said they don't anticipate the positive trend of reducing traffic to continue.

In its busiest year, clinic volunteers assisted between 1,500 and 2,000 area residents in signing up for insurance and finding a primary care provider.

Now, many of those insured patients are expected to return to Community Health Free Clinic.

"Even though some of our patients do have insurance, they're unable to afford their co-pays, they're unable to afford their deductibles," said Kara Goslin, a physician assistant at the clinic.

So far, the clinic has seen a 15 percent increase in visitors compared to last year.

Servicing these patients isn't impossible, but with volunteers down to less than 200 (one-third of its staff in 2013), treating people in a timely manner is somewhat of a concern for clinic leaders.

Community Health Free Clinic always welcomes donations of money or time, with volunteer medical professionals offering just a few hours per month making a major difference.

Darlene Schmidt, the clinic's CEO, said the goal still remains the same -- get uninsured visitors signed up and get all patients paired with a primary provider.

However, with costs up across the board, many who have insurance return due to the associated costs of visiting their primary doctor and picking up a prescription.

Henley said people with chronic diabetes are in a real bind, as their life-saving medication, insulin, has "skyrocketed [in price] over the last year" which is "driving a lot of patients [through] our door."

Insulin is among the many medicines the clinic provides patients free of charge, but those resources are limited.

Should traffic continue its upward trajectory, using the free clinic's in-house medication center could become a "last resort" for patients.

Ultimately, Henley said, regardless of the instability in the marketplace and the surging costs of health care, people are the priority.

"Whatever happens, the clinic is gong to be here," said Henley. "We're going to take the patients as they walk through the door and we're going to find out what they need and we're going to help them."

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