Ministries fill health-care gaps - Catholic Courier

Ministries fill health-care gaps

Discussing her volunteer work with Canandaigua Churches in Action’s health ministry, Laura Moore recalled recently helping a woman who couldn’t afford her husband’s monthly $800 prescription bill.

“She could not pay for (the prescription bill) because they were both on disability, trying to make the rent,” said Moore, who happened to overhear the woman discussing her situation as the woman waited to obtain food from CCIA’s food cupboard.

The couple also did not qualify for any form of government assistance, Moore noted.

“They were extremely desperate,” she added.

Moore, a parishioner of St. Mary Parish in Canandaigua, said helping people with their prescription costs is one of the health ministry’s vital services.

She recounted providing information that helped the woman persuade her husband’s physician to switch some of his 15 prescription medications to generic drugs or lower-cost alternative medications, thereby cutting the couple’s monthly bill by hundreds of dollars.

CCIA, which also offers a clothing ministry, is a coalition of Canandaigua churches and recently celebrated its first anniversary at the Thompson Cooperative building in the heart of the city. The health ministry currently is working on a partnership with F.F. Thompson Hospital and Rushville Health Clinic to provide direct medical and dental care for people in need, said Deacon Claude Lester, director of faith formation at St. Mary Parish.

“We’re trying to prove the case that people, even in this wonderful chosen spot of Canandaigua, do not have the means to provide good health care or good dental care for themselves and their family,” said Deacon Lester, who also heads CCIA’s interim leadership team.

Before the coalition can begin providing such care, however, it first must gather statistics to prove its case for a certificate of need from the state Department of Health, Deacon Lester said. A location for CCIA’s proposed health center is still under discussion, although the Thompson Cooperative building at 120 N. Main St. — the former Thompson Hospital — is a possibility, he added. Opening the center alongside CCIA’s other services would offer the holistic approach the group is looking for, Deacon Lester noted.

The building’s basement level is currently the site of CCIA’s food cupboard and offices. The St. Vincent de Paul Society, which provides clothing and food vouchers, also moved into the building last year. Presently, five medical volunteers, including a surgeon, also provide weekly referral services on a rotating basis for CCIA’s Health Connections ministry, Deacon Lester said.

“People walk out of there feeling, ‘Somebody listened to me. Somebody helped me,’” he said. “That’s as worthwhile as anything.”

This spring, members of the CCIA team attended a conference to discuss and learn more about faith-based health services currently being offered throughout the area. Conference speakers emphasized that the majority of their clients are the working poor whose large numbers demonstrate the need to overhaul the current medical-insurance system.

“The health-care system ‚Ķ has violated the public trust to care for the community,” said Sister Christine Wagner, director of St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center on South Avenue in Rochester. “As a faith community, isn’t that what we’re called to do — be there for each other?”

Sister Wagner was one of four speakers at the Genesee Region Public Health Association’s morning-long program April 19 for about 40 people at the Geneva Lakefront Ramada. The association sought to offer information about the successes and challenges of starting up and operating community health centers, said spokeswoman Joyce Lee.

Seventy percent of her center’s clients are working, Sister Wagner said. Forty-nine percent of patients treated by the Southern Tier Health Ministry — which includes health centers in Corning, Bath, Elmira and Watkins Glen — hold down as many as three jobs and still cannot pay for health insurance, according to Patricia Gilchrist, a nurse who helped create the Corning-Painted Post Health Ministry. Gilchrist is now a member of the steering committee for the Southern Tier ministry’s Corning center, which evolved from the Corning-Painted Post ministry.

The growth of that ministry illustrates why any group contemplating the creation or expansion of health-care services should do so sooner than later, according to Gilchrist.

“Just do it,” she said. “People are desperate. We are their last chance when people come to us. ‚Ķ We can’t meet the need. It’s growing and growing and growing.”

Approximately 2.6 million New York state residents are uninsured, according to statistics from the New York state Department of Health. The Kaiser Commission for Medicaid and the Uninsured reports that about 20 percent of all Americans do not have health insurance. Among families earning less than $20,000 per year, that figure jumps to 37 percent, according to the 2005 Kaiser study.

In Rochester, St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center — with 18,000 annual patient visits provided by 170 volunteer health-care professionals — soon will open a third site, a fact Sister Wagner said she finds disheartening. The center had purchased an adjacent house in 1998 to expand its services at that time, she said, and Sister Wagner had hoped not to have to do so again.

“Our real objective is to work ourselves out of a job,” she said.

In 2006, the Southern Tier ministry provided 2,800 medical visits as well as 2,000 dental procedures. Volunteers also have helped clients obtain $270,000 worth of prescriptions through applications for such programs as Patient Assistance Program offered by pharmaceutical companies, according to information from Deacon Raymond Defendorf, pastoral administrator of St. Mary Parish in Bath. The deacon, who helped create the Southern Tier Health Ministry, added that and the 10-year-old ministry now operates as a United Way agency.

To learn from such experiences was one of the main reasons CCIA members attended the health conference, said Deacon Lester, who added that CCIA hopes to begin providing hands-on care in January of next year.

“There are so many hard-luck stories,” added Moore, a nurse practitioner at Arcadia Family Practice in Wayne County. “The people that we’ve been able to help ‚Ķ even though we’re not able to provide direct services, we’ve been able to hook them up to places that care for them.”

The need is not confined to inner-city or rural settings. Also during the regional conference, Felice Armignacco from the Webster-Penfield Health Ministry discussed an often “hidden population” of people — including those who have been laid off from their jobs — who are turning to alternative health ministries because they have no other way to access heath care.

Armignacco’s ministry — a cooperative effort of Church of the Holy Spirit in Penfield and St. Rita, St. Paul and Holy Trinity parishes in Webster — offers workshops and informational resources as well as monthly blood-pressure screenings.

Sister Wagner said her center offers a “Wegmans model of one-stop shopping” by providing clients not only primary care but access to specialists in podiatry, ophthalmology, dentistry, rheumatology, cardiology, dermatology, neurology and psychiatry. The center is planning to combine its mental-health services with social services, Sister Wagner said.

“Our whole model is holistic,” she said. “It’s why we have everything under one roof. Every practitioner is available to other practitioners.”

The next step for the center is to find a partner that can evaluate the center’s 14 years of statistics on the efficiency of the faith-based model, she said. The plan is to utilize that research to increase the center’s advocacy efforts and address the need for a different model of health care, she noted.

“You don’t fix the health-care system on the back of volunteers,” Sister Wagner said. “A healthy community isn’t just about health care. It’s the total picture ‚Ķ and the ripple effect to the whole community.”

Sister Wagner said organizations interested in faith-based care must avoid underestimating health-care needs and have referral systems in place before opening any kind of center. Gilchrist also said new groups should make sure appointments are scheduled at the onset of hands-on care so volunteers are readily available to help the clients.

Noting that a survey conducted by CCIA showed health care is the greatest concern of the Canandaigua community, Deacon Lester said the coalition is working diligently to bring its health plan to fruition.

“We’re not a business,” he said. “We’re a ministry, a caring community trying to find a way that services are provided.”

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