On the last Wednesday in January, the RotaCare Tacoma free clinic in Washington state put away the chairs in the university janitor's lunchroom where it had made its home and closed its doors for the last time. The clinic, served by volunteer physicians and registered nurses, had carried 150 patients at any given time to serve the uninsured population in this city of about 200,000. But after Obamacare took full effect in January, and this clinic completed its drive to enroll all of its patients in coverage, it didn't have anyone left to serve. So they shut down at the end of January, the first month that health coverage under Obamacare kicked in.
Update: The photo that originally appeared with this piece has been replaced. Note the clarification below.
It wasn't long ago that the notion of a free health care clinic permanently closing its doors would have seemed like a horrible tragedy for an entire community. But when it comes to health care services in the United States, it's a new day, and this recent report from Dylan Scott highlights a case in which the demise of a clinic isn't a disaster -- it's a goal.
As Dylan reported, the clinic's staff of medical professionals had limited resources to treat limited ailments, so they focused on embracing the ACA, enrolling patients, and declaring victory.
"People were crying because they got insurance. It worked," Janet Runbeck, a registered nurse who also oversaw the clinic, told TPM.
This comes a month after reports of an Arkansas clinic closing its doors under similar circumstances.
As we talked about at the time, free clinics have been a lifeline for countless Americans, with thousands of struggling, uninsured Americans routinely sleeping outside, hoping for an opportunity to receive medical treatment they otherwise couldn't afford. I still remember watching Bill Moyers sit down five years ago with Wendell Potter, a former executive at a major health insurance company, who discovered the need for systematic reform after visiting a free clinic.
Potter visited a health care expedition in Wise, Virginia, in July 2007. "I just assumed that it would be, you know, like booths set up and people just getting their blood pressure checked and things like that," he said. "But what I saw were doctors who were set up to provide care in animal stalls. Or they'd erected tents, to care for people.... I've got some pictures of people being treated on gurneys, on rain-soaked pavement. And I saw people lined up, standing in line or sitting in these long, long lines, waiting to get care."
Potter added that families were there from "all over the region" because people had heard, "from word of mouth," about the possibility of being able to see a doctor without insurance. He asked himself, "What country am I in? It just didn't seem to be a possibility that I was in the United States."
That was then; this is now.
I don't want to overstate matters. The ACA has done an enormous amount of good in a short period of time, but while the uninsured rate is dropping, it's nowhere near zero. When clinics no longer feel the need to remain open, it's evidence of progress, but there will still be plenty of other free clinics and community health centers helping people facing crises.
That said, things are getting better. People are getting covered. Families are getting access to affordable medical care. I realize the opponents of health care reform doesn't want to hear this, but when folks running these clinics feel like their job is done, it's a reminder that the country is moving closer to where we need to be.
Update: This piece originally showed a photo at the Arlington Free Clinic in Virginia. Please note that this clinic has not closed and continues to see patients in the community. In fact, many free clinics nationwide continue to do necessary work -- some are even expanding -- to meet the needs of Americans who rely on these facilities for care.