Cash-Strapped Americans Increasingly Seeking Health Care at Free Clinics

George Anderson never thought he would end up in a free medical clinic. He always was able to provide health insurance for his family while working as a field manager for a book distributor.

But when the company went bankrupt and he lost his job last year, everything changed for the father of two.

His wife, who was suffering from pneumonia, woke up one night unable to breathe. Money was so tight for his family that George debated driving her to the hospital or calling for an ambulance. They ended up taking an ambulance, and she was released the following morning. But, in order to make a full recovery, his wife needed follow-up care and medication. That's when George, while doing research on the Internet, stumbled upon the Americares Free Clinics in Danbury, Conn.

The medical center comprises doctors, nurses and physician assistants who all volunteer their time and expertise. The clinic provides everything from checkups, to monitoring chronic diseases, referrals for x-rays, lab work, specialists and even prescription drugs. It serves uninsured, low-income patients who live in the area.

The clinic even advocated on behalf of Anderson's family to have the hospital waive his wife's medical bills. Once she was on the road to recovery, he started using the centers to treat his high blood pressure. It wasn't easy for him to accept free medical care. He says he was embarrassed, but was forced to swallow his pride. George is certain he's saved thousands of dollars on medical bills, which he really couldn't afford to pay. In fact, the Andersons were barely able to pay their mortgage and electric bills during the winter. Anderson said if it wasn't for the clinic, his family would have ended up homeless.

He isn't alone.

Across the nation, some 7 million to 8 million Americans are expected to walk through the doors of free clinics this year, up nearly 50 percent from last year. Karen Gottlieb, executive director of Americares Free Clinics, said that for the first time the clinics are seeing low- or moderate-income wage earners who in the past have had health insurance to take care of their family.

Gottlieb tells stories of seeing patients with tears in their eyes when they arrive, because they are ashamed and frightened. But there are some troubling trends hitting these clinics. While more and more Americans are relying on the free medical care, funding nationwide has dropped dramatically, by about 20 percent.

The clinics are privately funded, and while the slumping economy is leaving more people uninsured, it is also causing community donors and organizations to decrease their contributions. Experts want Americans to know, the free clinics will continue to make do with less, and keep what many call America's best health care secret open.