Critical condition

Lack of insured patients endangers clinics

When La Clinica en Lake shuts down on July 14, roughly 5,000 people will lose their primary healthcare provider. The overwhelming majority of the five-year-old Minneapolis clinic's clients are poor and Hispanic.

Mavis Brehm, executive director of West Side Community Health Services, which operates La Clinica, says that it simply wasn't economically feasible to keep the facility open. She notes that last year alone the clinic ran a $900,000 deficit.

The primary problem is that most of the clinic's customers have no means to pay for its services. Last year 79 percent of the organization's clients lacked medical insurance. "The amount of uninsured was much higher, consistently higher, than we anticipated," says Brehm.

La Clinica is not the only medical facility catering to low-income Minnesotans to close this year. In January, the Family Health Care Center, in Moorhead, shut its doors, citing similar economic difficulties. The clinic had 2,500 customers. "They were seeing more and more uninsured and weren't able to get any more grant funding to support services," says Rhonda Degelau, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Community Health Centers (MACHC).

The mounting number of uninsured patients is a problem throughout the state. According to the MACHC, 33,163 uninsured clients received treatment at its 16 member clinics in 1999, compared to 48,396 in 2004--a 46 percent increase. Statewide, 41 percent of community health center patients lacked insurance in 2004. "I'm really concerned that this could keep happening to other clinics," Degelau says. "I do know from talking to our clinic directors that everybody is struggling."

During the just concluded legislative session, the MACHC lobbied for $1.5 million to help health clinics deal with the mounting number of uninsured patients seeking care. But the initiative was rejected. "We knew it was a long shot because it was a non-budget year," Degelau says. "I'm hoping we can really make a strong case this next session that we really need state support."