By: Alieta Eck, MD
A 53-year old man, shoulders slumped, sat on the exam table at the Zarephath Health Center, a non-governmental free clinic in central New Jersey. He was asking me, one of several volunteer physicians, to fill out forms to apply for Social Security disability.
His story depicted a safety net that is broken and beyond repair.
Afflicted with severe nasal polyps that have left him unable to breathe through his nose, only high dose prednisone gave him a sliver of relief. He told the tortuous tale of going from an industrious builder to an exhausted dejected unemployed man, unable to get relief. He had qualified for Medicaid, the state/federal “insurance” for the poor that so underpays physicians and surgeons it becomes a cruel offering of false hope. Last year, surgery was cancelled at the last minute when the surgeon realized that he would not only receive very little compensation from Medicaid, but would also incur full liability if anything went wrong.
For $1,600 the surgeon would have agreed to operate, but it may as well have been $60,000. The man was penniless, barely able to pay his rent. Someone told him about our free clinic, founded in 2003, and now seeing 300-400 patients per month at a cost of $18 per patient visit. Taking no government funds, it operates by the donations of time and money from the community.
I examined this man and realized that the surgery could be life-transforming. I called an ear, nose and throat specialist friend of mine. The clinic had some extra funds donated by people who understand our mission and we agreed upon a very reasonable fee. After applying for charity care at our local hospital, pre-op tests were completed and the surgery was done. He can now breathe easily for the first time in many years.
The Zarephath Health Center will pay the surgeon and the patient, so grateful that someone gave him a break, has offered to do whatever he can to help the Zarephath Health Center renovate a new facility as it moves out of a flood plain and quadruples its space.
When Judge Henry Hudson ruled that ObamaCare was un-Constitutional, we, at the Zarephath Health Center, breathed a sigh of relief. For this monstrous law would have increased bureaucratic red tape and placed millions more into a Medicaid system that was and is beyond repair. Costing NJ and federal taxpayers $9 billion per year now in a state with a total budget of $33 billion, it would have expanded the rolls without solving any problem of access to affordable health care.
Unable to find a doctor willing to work within the system, Medicaid recipients over-utilize the emergency rooms where they only receive a quick fix and a band-aid on medical issues that often run very deep.
A recent proposal has been made to the NJ Senate minority leader, Tom Kean, suggesting that the Medicaid system be scrapped and replaced with a far simpler program to be administered out of one state office. Even forgoing the $4.5 billion in federal aid, the New Jersey taxpayers would come out ahead. NJ physicians would be asked to donate 4 hours per week in a free clinic like the Zarephath Health Center. Surgeons could agree to do one operation for free or spend the time in a hospital clinic. The only compensation would be a big “Thank You” from the state in the form of medical malpractice coverage applied to his entire practice– the same coverage given to any physician who teaches in the medical school university hospitals.
No medical malpractice premiums would need to be paid– the state would just stand behind and protect the doctors willing to help the poor for no compensation. No billing, no claim forms, no checks, no corruption, no fraud and abuse– only a return to real charity, not entitlement. Doctors would be compensated by the reduction in office overhead, patients would find access to doctors, volunteers would step in and help and taxpayers would finally get relief. A real sense of community would result.
Maybe it is time to think outside the box, admit that Medicaid does not work for the majority of people who need it the most, and replace it with an assertive, basic, challenging, diverse, effective, gradual and sometimes even faith-based program that is simple, ennobling and empowering. After 45 years of a failed social experiment, it is time to replace Medicaid with real charity.
Alieta Eck, M.D. graduated from the Rutgers College of Pharmacy in NJ and the St. Louis School of Medicine in St. Louis, MO. She studied Internal Medicine at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, NJ and has been in private practice with her husband, Dr. John Eck, MD in Piscataway, NJ since 1988. She has been involved in health care reform since residency and is convinced that the government is a poor provider of medical care. She testified before the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress in 2004 about better ways to deliver health care in the United States. In 2003, she and her husband founded the Zarephath Health Center, a free clinic for the poor and uninsured that currently cares for 300-400 patients per month utilizing the donated services of volunteer physicians and nurses. Dr. Eck is a long time member of the Christian Medical Dental Association and in 2009 joined the board of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. In addition, she serves on the board of Christian Care Medi-Share, a faith based medical cost sharing Ministry. She is a member of Zarephath Christian Church and she and her husband have five children, one in medical school in NJ.