VIEWPOINT: Let's improve the health of working poor

January 15, 2007

On a cold and rainy day and wearing only a thin jacket, Maria walked eight miles to get help. She was pregnant and seeking prenatal care. Her husband had deserted her.

The pervasiveness of unemployed and working-poor families presents a growing challenge. Most are underinsured or have no health insurance at all. That means our charity-care system is stretched to the maximum. One north-side center that provides care for the uninsured and underinsured has seen a 15-percent increase in patients just over the last four months.

Fortunately for Maria, she was able to find prenatal care where her health care needs were met, and the staff contributed furniture and clothes. Months later, her baby boy was born healthy. Maria now has a car and steady employment. She is a contributing member of our community, but remains one of the growing numbers of working poor without health insurance.

Tens of thousands of families like Maria's are served each year by a local network of clinics and hospitals, including the Wishard Health Service Clinics, Raphael Health Center, St. Vincent Primary Care Center, Bethany Christian, Trinity and St. Eliza beth. Working together, they form a safety net to meet the health care needs of the poor.

Nationally, last year more than 46 million people were uninsured, a jump of 7 million from 2000. In Indiana, the rate of uninsured is growing at twice the national average. It is important that we create a greater awareness in light of increasing need, rising costs and insurance issues. The Citizens Health Care Working Group, a panel authorized by the 2003 Medicare Modernization Act, engaged the American public in a national dialogue on health care issues.

Among its recommendations were that communities "foster innovative, integrated community health networks." How can our community work together to benefit more individuals and families so they can live healthy lives and contribute to the community as responsible citizens?

Hospitals with strong philanthropic partnerships in the community will be best positioned to serve vulnerable populations. They will have the financial resources that help fill gaps in funding for cutting-edge technology, quality care and educational programs for patients. Entrepreneurial initiatives with the private sector can help support such efforts.

In Austin, Texas, a leading hospital uses a foundation to support delivery of health care services to the poor. Their preventive care model assists the local health care system by cutting overall expenses while reducing patient illnesses and complications. In Denver, new initiatives have assigned tens of thousands of uninsured patients to community clinics that charge minimal or no fees.

These are examples of how we can break the cycle that traps working-poor individuals who lack preventive health care and access to treatment. Good health is basic to becoming a productive citizen. We need greater community support for primary-care clinics in Indianapolis. Our emotional, spiritual and material support can help families reach self-sufficiency.

In true American and Hoosier spirit, communities rose to the challenges of the 2004 tsunami and 2005 hurricanes, and gave generously. Continuing to support philanthropic initiatives that address the issues of the most vulnerable among us will help make our community stronger-and healthier.

Gilroy is vice president of development and executive director of the St. Vincent Foundation and former Indiana secretary of state.
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