Caregivers and organizations in Western North Carolina — including community health centers, acupuncturists and herbalists — are helping people without insurance receive the care they need. Indeed, many providers say access to health care is a basic human right.
People in every corner of the state should be covered and have access to care, says Benjamin Money, CEO and president the N. C. Community Health Center Association. Founded in 1978, the association represents such local nonprofits as Blue Ridge Community Health Services, Western North Carolina Community Health Services and Appalachian Mountain Community Health Centers.
Blue Ridge has been serving residents in Henderson County area for more than 50 years; WNCCHS has been in Asheville more than two decades; and Appalachian received its federal recognition earlier this year.
Money, commenting on the spread of community health centers across WNC, adds, “It is a real pleasure to see people gain access to what is a human right.”
Even though the Affordable Care Act of 2010 aimed to make health care coverage accessible to all citizens, says Money, many North Carolinians still cannot afford health insurance. Further, he adds, state legislators decided not to participate in the federal opportunity to expand Medicaid, leaving more than 300,000 people without access to affordable health care coverage.
Providing health services is a human right for all who need it, says Scott Parker, director of development and collaboration at WNCCHS and its subsidiary, the Minnie Jones Health Care Center. WNCCHS is a federally qualified community health center, one of over 1,200 across the United States and one of 38 in North Carolina. WNCCHS provides primary care, behavioral health, dental care, transportation by bus and translation services — all under one roof, says Parker.
Launched in the 1960s as a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty, community health centers started during a period of activism and social change, he says. The centers created a kind of laboratory for finding out if such nonprofits could provide low-cost primary health care to underprivileged/low-income people and make a difference in their lives.
So, have they made a difference?
They have, Parker says. “We have enjoyed bipartisan support because [N.C. legislators] realize how cost-effective community health centers are. Our main goal is to provide integrated services to low-income and underinsured people, and another goal is to keep people out of costly emergency rooms for primary care.”
CHCs in North Carolina serve about a half million people per year, says Parker.
The Minnie Jones Community Health Center, where 98 percent of patients are below the poverty level, helps ensure access to care by offering a sliding-fee scale based on income. In 2014, the center provided care to 14,500 unduplicated patients (that is, not counting multiple visits), including 700 clients who were HIV-positive, for a total of 60,000 individual visits, he reports.
“One of the great things about our integrated approach to care in the community is providing everything under one roof, so that barriers are decreased and the likelihood of receiving proper care increases,” Parker says. Sixty percent of the center’s patients have no insurance, although it does offer certified application counselors to screen for eligibility for the Affordable Care Act, including access to Medicare and Medicaid. The Minnie Jones Health Center confirms an individual’s residency status, including patients who reside in a local homeless shelter.
Community health centers aren’t the only organizations trying to provide low-cost or free care to those who need it.
People’s Acupuncture in Asheville does its part to make health care universally accessible by treating anybody who walks through the doors, say co-owners Aimee Schinasi and Sam Soemardi. Based on the community acupuncture model set forth by Lisa Rohleer in Portland, Ore., the treatment center creates an affordable body of medicine that works best when it is regularly received, says Schinasi. “Part of the movement is the idea of promoting acupuncture so it is affordable to utilize long-term to get [patients’] needs met. Community acupuncture is working-class acupuncture.”
People’s Acupuncture treats a variety of problems — everything from headaches to back pain, depression, insomnia and menstrual issues. It does not accept insurance, but that’s what keeps rates affordable, Schinasi continues. Center rates are on a sliding scale, from $15-$35 per session (plus an additional $10 for an initial consultation).
Paperwork, Schinasi notes, drives up the cost of medicine.
“In community acupuncture, you feel the collective healing qi that comes from everybody sitting in a room with other people,” she says. That’s another positive effect of the healing process outside of a doctor’s office, and it’s one that “helps dissolve the isolation people can feel from going to the doctor.”
Although the People’s Acupuncture model sits outside of health insurance, it nevertheless provides a stable income base for acupuncture and Chinese medicine practitioners, Schinasi says. And patients can afford to return and receive the care they need on an ongoing basis, which, she adds, is essential for acupuncture to work.
Asheville resident and certified holistic herbalist Deanna Riggan says she recognized that many people are ill because they lack access to health care. She wanted to break the barrier to holistic community health care. There’s an abundance of herbalists in Western North Carolina, so Riggan founded Blue Ridge Healers Without Borders. It’s a chapter of Herbalists Without Borders, a nonprofit global network of volunteers devoted to aiding communities and countries impacted by natural disasters, violent conflicts, poverty, trauma and other access barriers to health and wellness.
“We want to help communities by offering free classes so people can heal not only their selves but also … help others,” says Riggan.
Blue Ridge Healers, which is run entirely by volunteers, provides everything from massage to acupuncture to herbal tea remedies, she explains. So far, the Asheville chapter has convened in Pritchard Park, Food Not Bombs gatherings on the UNC Asheville campus and in Cherokee to offer services to those who are looking for free health services. Similar to Doctors Without Borders, the group plans to eventually provide disaster relief services as well as free herbal remedies to those in need, says Riggan.
Blue Ridge Healers currently has no funding but is actively looking for sponsors for regular clinics and enough supplies for all who need them, she explains. Over 200 volunteers are motivated to continue offering services even without funding, and they’ve paid for herbal supplies and remedies out of their own pockets, says Riggan. BRH is looking to take donations of herbal remedies that are already prepared and has a wish list for needed items on its Facebook page, she says. On December 20th from 12:30-2 pm, BRH will be set up in Pritchard Park offering free healing modalities.
“I have seen a lot of greed in the health care system,” she says, noting that health care should be affordable. “Practitioners should get paid for what they do, and I think sliding scale is the best way, so that way people who don’t have much money can access it.”
Riggan believes in empowering people to know they don’t have to rely on the health care system. She teaches people how to take care of themselves by creating herbal tea for cold remedies. She has also created a Facebook community page, which lists where the upcoming clinics will be held. Riggan and fellow healers also give out questionnaires to find out what each geographical area needs to build trust and community.
“We want to make health services accessible for locals,” Riggan says. “If providers can offer one free session per week … that would do so much because we have so much here, and no one should be suffering.”
Blue Ridge Healers Without Borders
Wellness Day: December 20 in Pritchard Park with Food Not Bombs; 12-2:30
Western North Carolina Community Health Services
North Carolina Community Health Center Association