On the last Wednesday in January, the RotaCare Tacoma free clinic in Washington state closed its doors for the last time. This is a sign of success, not failure.
The clinic, served by volunteer physicians and registered nurses, had cared for 150 patients at any given time to serve the uninsured population in the city of about 200,000. But after Obamacare took full effect in January, and this clinic completed its drive to enroll all of its patients in coverage, there was no one left to serve.
So they shut down the first month that health coverage under Obamacare kicked in. The people who worked there don’t seem too torn up about it.
“It happened very quickly. We had to start telling our providers not to come because we didn’t have enough patients,” according to Mary Hoagland-Scher, a Tacoma family practitioner who served as the clinic’s medical director. “It just dried up. Poof.”
Starting in October, as Obamacare’s enrollment launched, the clinic had social workers authorized to help people enroll come and assist their patients in signing up. By January, almost every one of their roughly 150 charges had either enrolled through Obamacare or gotten a job with coverage. A few undocumented immigrants were transferred to another program run by the local medical society. They stocked up their other patients with three months’ worth of their prescribed medications to ensure they would be properly cared for until they could schedule an appointment with their new doctor.
That makes RotaCare Tacoma an unusual case, but not an entirely unique one. Free clinic directors in Iowa and Ohio said they haven’t seen anything like it on a systematic level. And there is the story of a free clinic in Medina, Ark., which closed in April after seeing its patient numbers dwindle from 300 to 80 to three as people obtained coverage through Obamacare in the first three months of 2014. “Our services won’t be needed anymore,” the director told a local newspaper.
While Obamacare is succeeding in many areas, there is still a need for free-clinics, particularly in states without expanded Medicaid and areas with a large number of undocumented immigrants who can’t get coverage under the law.
But emerging stories like those in Arkansas and Washington suggest that tangible effects of Obamacare’s coverage expansion, for the formerly uninsured and those who serve them, are starting to be felt.