Health insurance is expensive and not always reliable, and in hard times, people already scrambling to make ends meet may have an even greater struggle finding ways to pay for medical care.
Fortunately, Buncombe County is home to a number of organizations that offer medical care for free or for a minimal contribution, based on the patient's income.
Here's a rundown of some of these local resources.
Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry
ABCCM's clinic provides free medical, dental and pharmaceutical care to anyone without health insurance, medicare or medicaid whose income is less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The clinic sees patients Monday through Thursday, but needy people often start lining up one to two hours before the 9 a.m. opening.
"We provide a lot of the same services as an urgent-care clinic; we hope this is an alternative to waiting so long that they have to go to the emergency room for people that need treatment but can't afford to get it," the Rev. Scott Rogers, the nonprofit's director, explains. And though the clinic is struggling to meet the increased demand due to the economic downturn with a reduced staff and hours, it's still managing to see every patient.
The ABCCM medical clinic is located at 155 Livingston St. in Asheville. For more information, call 259-5339.
Buncombe County Health Center
Although the Buncombe County Health Center has recently transferred many of its services to the nonprofit Western North Carolina Community Health Services (see below), the Health Center is still handling a number of areas, primarily those concerning women's and children's health and communicable diseases.
For example, the county offers free testing and counseling for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases. There's also free tuberculosis treatment, and prenatal care on a sliding scale. Family planning is free for people ages 18 or younger, and maternity care, coordination of child services, women's cardiovascular wellness and infant nutrition are all free of charge.
The Health Department also provides some vaccines for free, though there's a charge for most vaccines needed for foreign travel.
The Buncombe County Health Center is located at 35 Woodfin St. in downtown Asheville. For more information, call 250-5000.
Western North Carolina Community Health Services
In a cost-cutting move, this federally qualified clinic (which gets reimbursed at a higher rate than the county can) recently took over management of many services formerly provided by the Buncombe County Health Center. Offering three core services — primary medical care, behavioral health care and dental care — the clinic can serve patients at substantially lower cost, typically thanks to subsidies, depending on the person's insurance status, income level and other factors.
The WNCCHS clinic is located at 257 Biltmore Ave. in Asheville; call 285-0622 to schedule an appointment and learn about eligibility criteria.
Besides these free clinics, there's also Project Access, a program of the Buncombe County Medical Society Foundation in which some 650 physicians and other medical professionals donate their time and services to qualifying county residents.
"We get patients referred to us by the safety net: low-income, uninsured patients who have a medical need," notes Jana Kellam, the foundation's manager of health access.
Right now, about 3,500 people are participating in the program. All their care, lab work and other medical needs are covered in exchange for a $5 co-pay.
"The main purpose is to help people before the emergency room — to give them a reason to stay in the system and get treated," says Kellam.
To learn more about Project Accesss, call 274-6989
In the "Blue Zone" with Park Ridge Hospital
This year Park Ridge Hospital will celebrate its 100th anniversary, and part of its celebration will offer free opportunities for the community to achieve higher levels of wellness. The hospital has announced a series of programs to promote "blue zone" principles; that is, the healthy-living stratagems shared by author Dan Buettner in his 2008 book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest.
In addition to sponsoring a visit and presentation by Buettner later this year, Park Ridge is launching what it calls a "major wellness initiative" that will include "free community outreach programs and presentations that promote overall wellness and healthy lifestyles."
For details on the Blue Zone campaign, visit www.parkridgehospital.org/WNCBlueZone.
David Forbes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 251-1333, ext. 137.