Free Clinics Want Permanent Status

The people who run the free clinics that sprang up after Hurricane Katrina are breathing a sigh of relief, at least for now. On Wednesday, the State Board of Medical Licensure voted to continue giving temporary licenses to out-of-state doctors for as long as Mississippi is under a state of emergency.

Two free clinics, one in Biloxi and the other in D'Iberville, say it's time for Mississippi to start thinking of free clinics as something long term. The staff says that can't be done without the support of out-of-state health care professionals who come as volunteers.

For Iowa nurse Beth Hutchinson to be volunteering in a free clinic in South Mississippi is nothing new. Her first trip was in 2005 and not long after Hurricane Katrina.

"Even then, I remember we wanted to come. We were determined to come," said Hutchinson. "There were barriers everywhere."

At Bethel Lutheran Church Free Medical Clinic in Biloxi, the main barrier for out- of-state doctors and nurses is getting temporary medical licenses from Mississippi.

Director Judy Jones said, "We have a different doctor every week. We have different nurses coming in every week because we couldn't run the clinic without them. There are no local volunteers."

Jones says although the clinic opened as a result of Katrina, it shouldn't take a monthly disaster declaration from the governor to continue to operate.

"Having some kind of system within their board where free clinics regardless of whether we're under a state of emergency or not. Where volunteers can come down and get temporary licenses," Jones said. "I think that's my long range thing because I am looking for some location that will be permanent."

The D'Iberville Free clinic sees 30 to 40 people each day in need of prescriptions or a doctor's care. Almost all of those doctors are out-of-state volunteers.

Clinic director says the loss of the temporary licenses would close the clinic.

"I would like to see that they can make allowance to make temporary licenses for free clinics. We are a Christian Clinic and we do have doctors who are Christians that like to come down on mission trips whether there is a disaster or not. They volunteer to go to Mexico and Africa and stuff and there are ones that do that that would love to do a mission trip within their own country."

The volunteers don't understand complaints from local doctors who say free clinics are hurting their practice.

Squibb said, "I looked at the man and said 'If you will see the patients that have no money and no insurance, I'll be glad to send you all the patients that you want.' He said "No, Ma'am. I can't do that.' And I said 'Well, I can't see that we're hurting you.'"

Squibb says free clinics benefit hospitals.

"We've had some of the emergency rooms call us and say, 'Hey, we've got a patient here who really doesn't need to be seen on an emergency basis. Do you have a doctor? Can they be seen in your clinic?'"

She added, "So we can actually help the hospitals and take some of the load off the emergency rooms. If we leave. That's the only resource that these people have got. "

The medical volunteers say with or without Katrina or other natural disasters, there's a need in Mississippi.

Jones said, "We have less free clinics than other state I'm aware of with this kind of poverty level."

The Bethel Lutheran Church Free Medical Clinic staff says nearly 7,000 people have received assistance there since the weeks following Katrina.