Bridging the Opportunity Divide

No Insurance? Not a Problem for This Group of Big-Hearted Doctors

December 23, 2014
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No Insurance? Not a Problem for This Group of Big-Hearted Doctors
Mission of Mercy provides free healthcare to patients in need Thomas Shomaker
This nonprofit dispenses goodness in Arizona.

The assembly room at Christ the King Community Center in Mesa, Ariz. was brimming with people of all ages and races. The reason for the congregation’s gathering? Mission of Mercy’s weekly medical clinic.

The nonprofit faith-based community organization operates in six sites in the greater Phoenix area and also in parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Texas, providing free, no-questions-asked health care to thousands of people since its beginnings in 20 years ago.

Mission of Mercy began when founder Dr. Gianna Talone Sullivan felt a divine calling in 1991. In 1994, the first clinic began taking in economically disadvantaged people using, then as now, volunteer practitioners and donated space. To date, it has provided more than 380,000 patients free appointments and dispensed more than 645,000 prescriptions at its 17 pop-up style clinics in churches and community centers. Partnerships with pharmaceutical companies allow Mission of Mercy to often obtain just-expired yet still effective drugs.

While it stems from a Christian ethic, the nonprofit does not have a proselytizing agenda.

Mission of Mercy receives some financial support from local hospitals that have seen their emergency room costs decline as a result of the group’s presence. The remainder of the funding is strictly private donations and grants. That’s because, as Mission of Mercy treats everyone regardless of citizenship status or income, it has chosen not to pursue state or federal funds, which often come with stipulations.

“I am no longer told by an insurance company,” says Doctor Ira Ehrlich, a retired cardiologist who now practices primary care as a Mission of Mercy volunteer, “what I can and can’t do for a patient.”

Doctor Ehrlich puts in one day every week at Mission of Mercy in Arizona, usually at the Mesa location. In addition to the personal gratification he feels, he says that it is a true pleasure to be able to actually connect with his patients.

“At the Mission of Mercy I can take all the time I want,” says Doctor Ehrlich, “and I think the patient leaves with the feeling that they’ve actually seen a doctor and have been listened too.”

Despite the expansion of health care in America under the Affordable Care Act, the vagaries of federal and state guidelines have left many unable to access care or receive the level of care they need. One such person is Paul Scherb, a patient at the Mesa, Ariz. location. After losing his insurance (and his longtime job) a year ago, Scherb looked into what government benefits he might qualify for. He discovered that for an Arizona household of two (which describes the home he shares with his wife), his income must be less than $15,130 to be eligible for Medicaid — putting Scherb in the awkward position of self-identifying as poor, but not being poor enough to receive assistance.

“If Mission of Mercy was not here,” says Scherb, “then I would just be without health care. I couldn’t afford the drugs, I can’t afford the doctor.”

Mission of Mercy also helps the immigrant population. At their clinics, Spanish interpreters (also volunteers), help serve those that don’t speak English as their primary language. While Mission of Mercy does not ask residency questions, it doesn’t know what proportion of its patients are illegal immigrants — but the number is presumably high. In Arizona alone, there were an estimated 400,000 undocumented immigrants in 2010, a figure that represents about six percent of the state’s population. If not for Mission of Mercy, many of these people would have no choice but to visit hospital emergency rooms in a crisis, or to try and dangerously weather their maladies without medical assistance.

Mission of Mercy’s operations are complicated, requiring coordination with religious institutions, hospitals, community centers, pharmaceutical companies, software for patient records and armies of volunteers. But at the core, the organization is quite simple: It will see anyone who needs care and treat those patients with dignity and respect.

“They’re trying their best in a tough situation,” Doctor Ehrlich says about his patients, “and we’re trying our best to help them in that tough situation.”

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