Free and low cost health care as a basic human right

TEA AND SYMPATHY: Casey Larkin, right, of Blue Ridge Healers Without Borders, offers free herbal tea and remedies to the Asheville public in Pritchard Park. Photo by Katherine Terra

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.

Grassroots options

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.”

More Info

People’s Acupuncture

Blue Ridge Healers Without Borders
Wellness Day: December 20 in Pritchard Park with Food Not Bombs; 12-2:30

Deanna Riggan

Western North Carolina Community Health Services

North Carolina Community Health Center Association


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20 thoughts on “Free and low cost health care as a basic human right

  1. James

    In order to have “free healthcare” then the costs to provide that healthcare have to be free as well. That means doctors and nurses need to do their work for free – how they pay off their medical education and support themselves and their families I guess is something they’ll have to figure out themselves. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs also have to be free. So, everyone involved in the R+D, clinical trials, production and distribution of life-saving drugs is going to have to do it for free with no payment. Hospitals and clinics will have to come from a magic wand because building them requires materials, permits, staffing, etc. and all of that costs money that can’t be recovered because healthcare has to be free. It is astonishing how idiotic people are today of economics. Nothing in this world is free and healthcare does not deserve to be free!

    • Thanks for your response James. The idea is to make healthcare accessible for people. Most people still cannot afford healthcare even with the Affordable Care Act, and are therefore not going to the doctor for checkups and therefore ending up with preventable diseases like heart disease (which is the #1 killer in the US). The magic wand you talk about is government funding, which is currently supporting places like WNCCHS as I mentioned in the article.The issue with healthcare not being accessible or low cost is that people are not receiving the care they deserve.

    • hauntedheadnc

      Oh? So, the doctors, nurses, and specialists in the nations that do offer free healthcare to their citizens work for free?

      Golly, who knew!

  2. Peter Robbins

    The herbalist is right. Everyone should have a right to basic instruction on how to make tea. But let’s make sure people still have to dig into their own pockets if they want an advanced tutorial on spooning honey. Otherwise, we’d be trivializing a real problem.

    • Peter, touche in the comic zone…. but I do think we have a real problem and do not mean in any way to trivialize it. Actually, quite the opposite. My father died from heart disease, and had he just seen the doctor, his heart attack could have been prevented. I hope to inspire everyone to take care of themselves and make sure health and healing is at the forefront of people’s minds. I think people should be considering how to heal their selves with traditional and alternative methods (if that appeals to them), and our community should feel like there are many accessible options to a healthy lifestyle.

      • Peter Robbins

        You’re right. You convinced me. And to show how much I’ve profited from your friendly lecture, I shall amend my position to state categorically that no health-care professional – and I mean no one – should ever charge people money just for teaching them how to make tea. At any level of education. Even the critical saucer-slurp stage. Important health-care information should be freely available to all.

        I trust you can now proceed to respond to other commenters without undue defensiveness. And I can dismiss my wife from proof-reading duties and let her get back her volunteer efforts signing people up for Obamacare. Those people merit our attention, too. We can’t expend all our sympathies on overworked beverage gurus.

        • You do not need to respond– this is a free place for people to have a conversation, which is awesome. I would like to follow up. I do not feel it my response was a lecture, but rather my stance to your view. What Riggan is doing is helping people learn how to combine herbs and use stress relieving techniques to help heal their bodies: which includes stress reduction for lowering BP. I certainly commend your wife on her volunteer efforts, and, as I noted in the article, the ACA is a great way for many people to access healthcare. WNCCHS provides this service free to anyone who walks into their doors. I hope you and many readers can see my angle of showing the public where they can receive healthcare information, professional care, and a variety of ways to heal their bodies and minds.

          • The Real World

            Peter – you are one of my favorite commenters! Bring it on.

            Kate – I commend your efforts at keeping information coming on the topic of health care and at actively engaging with the comments section.

            Here’s an issue I have: I may very well throw a party the FIRST time I ever hear or read from someone who believes that healthcare is our right ALSO opine that we, individually, have the *responsibility* to do our best to live a healthy life. It generally isn’t a complicated formula:
            — eat a balanced diet (fruit, veggies, lean protein, mostly whole grains; easy on the fat, sugar and alcohol)
            — talk a good walk, regularly!
            — get adequate sleep
            — eliminate or reduce exposure to selfish, stressful people or environments

            You know what? Most people could do that — but huge numbers choose not to and it’s a given that their health suffers. Yippee, we all get to pay for their bad choices! Why do article writers and pundits never speak of the individual responsibility aspect? When you don’t, you aren’t addressing the REAL underlying cause for many health care needs.

            In line with that, let me offer this stunning observation. I had not been to Europe in 11 years but was in France and Switzerland this Summer. For 9 days I was in urban areas and given the condensed nature of Euro cities there are lots of people on foot, using public transport, etc. So in that time, I saw literally thousands of people. It wasn’t until I was back in Atlanta airport and saw at least 6 obese and dozens of overweight people within 30 minutes – REALLY – that I realized I had not seen ONE obese person in 9 days and maybe ten of the thousands observed were packing an extra 30 or 40 pounds. Like I said, stunning!

            Very simply, if Americans took their OWN health seriously, they wouldn’t need as many trips to the Doc or many of the drugs they take. How about an article about that?

          • Peter Robbins

            One of your favorite commenters? One of? Are you trying to insult me? Well, lucky for you I just learned about the calming properties of herbal tea. How long are you supposed to leave the bag in, though? To be honest, it tasted a little lame.

  3. The Real World

    Now, now Peter…it’s important to share the love. Leave the tea bag in a little longer, my friend.

    Back to Kate, I’m going to jump in on James’ thesis above also. It is both truly annoying and ridiculous to refer to “free” healthcare. It’s not FREE! You are contributing to the dumbed-down, entitlement mentality of Americans. Let’s see: the govt should provide jobs (not their role), they should provide plenty of financial cushions for whenever we fall (we should have some $$ cushion ourselves), they should not bother pointing out that WE create most of our health problems and just provide lots of care for the health issues we willingly create for no/little immediate out-of-pocket cost (that’s bass ackwards, as my dad would say), they owe us fancy minimum wages and reasonable cost of housing (b/c small biz owners should make slim profit for the risk they’re taking and hours they put in. Oh and, developers don’t deserve much either for their risk and time). And the list goes on.

    No, I’m not suggesting that you asserted all those things but the title and some of the content of your article is right in that ‘gimme stuff for nothing’ and ‘you owe me’ mentality. There are many situations where it’s not clear which comes first, chicken or egg, but in this case there’s no doubt — a huge portion of our health problems start with the decisions WE make every day. I stand by the formula mentioned above.

    C’mon Mountain X….stop treating people like pitiful victims who need Big Daddy to provide for them. Be part of the solution and help teach them how they can do it themselves. Now, there is a PROGRESSIVE and radical idea in 2015.

    • hauntedheadnc

      No, a progressive and radical idea for 2016 would be to join the rest of the civilized world and build a healthcare system that offer the same low prices and high returns as that found in every other developed nation on earth.

      Personally, I don’t think we should settle for the highest prices, worst results, and some of the worst infant mortality and lowest life expectancy in the developed world “because freedom!”

    • Deanna Riggan

      That’s the whole mission of The Blue Ridge Healers without Borders … The Blue Ridge Healers Without Borders provide free and sliding scale community resources for self empowerment. Providing these resources of education and medicine will therefore empower individuals, families and communities to become more self reliant.

  4. Dan

    It seemed to me that this article was REPORTING on an idea that some people are promoting, and how this idea comes to fruition in Western North Carolina, both in the form of traditional primary care physicians, and holistic practitioners. Anyone can feel free to disagree with the concept of tax payer funded low-cost healthcare, or volunteer holistic medicine practice. The author was reporting that these services exist, and that there are people in WNC who promote them. Everybody already knows that there are high-cost wellness options. Not much need to report on those. Someone could definitely write an article discussing the pros and cons of socialized healthcare if they want to. This article wasn’t about that though.

  5. The Real World

    My comments are not related to what type of healthcare system we have or want. Sigh….people are so myopic. As I stated, my points were about a pervasive mentality of ‘I have the rights to this, that and everything but no one is going to assign or expect some responsibility from me.’

    I was also addressing the idea of regarding people in general like helpless, dependent victims rather than having respect for their abilities to positively impact their OWN lives by taking their health seriously. It’s all there, please re-read.

    • hauntedheadnc

      I believe you’ll find that preventative care, up to and including diet and exercise for diseases such as diabetes, depression, and high cholesterol, are important components of universal healthcare in other countries. America’s passion for a pharmaceutical fix is fairly unique. Most of us who advocate universal healthcare in America do so knowing that personal responsibility and healthier living are parts of universal healthcare already.

    • Deanna Riggan

      The Blue Ridge Healers Without Borders provide free and sliding scale community resources for self empowerment. Providing these resources of education and medicine will therefore empower individuals, families and communities to become more self reliant.

    • Deanna Riggan

      The Blue Ridge Healers without Borders group is not supporting a victim mentality. If anything, we are telling people that they are not victims! We can take health care into our own hands! We will not be just teaching about making tea! Let’s be clear.. We will be teaching community gardening, anatomy &physiology, reflexology, nutrition, home herbal remedies and more! We are Providing the resources for a heathier life! We are not just going to be giving away free medicine! We are well educated practitioners that know that you can not just treat the symptom. We are going to the root of the cause and that is why we are teaching classes, doing community gardens and clinics.

  6. This is a very interesting article showing that medical help is being provided to those in need even though they do not have any money to pay for it. I disagree with people saying that healthcare should not be free for anyone and that everyone has to pay for it. I understand that doctors, nurses, pharmaceutical companies and other providers need to be paid for their efforts but on the other hand there are still some people who need medical care and do not have money to pay for it. We cannot let them die because lots of them were just unlucky and they do not have money not because of the fact that they do not work, etc. but because of other facts (their spouse took everything from them, kids do not look after them, are so ill that they cannot work, etc.). So any effort – herbal or pharmaceutical – counts and we need to help them. Just my two cents …

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