Uninsured Upsurge 

Due to the economic downturn, the Church Health Center is seeing more patients.

When the Church Health Center, the city's largest clinic for working people without health insurance, was founded in 1987, about 27 million Americans didn't have health insurance. Today, that number is 46 million people nationally.

In Memphis, the trend is no different. In the past year, the Church Health Center has seen a 70 percent increase in new patients.

"A lot of people who live close to the margins have been put in an unfortunate situation of choosing between paying their health insurance premiums or putting food on the table," says Marvin Stockwell, a spokesperson for the Church Health Center.

Stockwell says many of the new patients have either lost their jobs or had their hours cut back to part-time, which often means losing health benefits.

"People who have never been uninsured are showing up, and they're floored by being in this position," Stockwell says. "These are people who are seeking out social services for the first time. They never in a million years thought they'd need them."

The Church Health Center has a staff of seven doctors, one nurse practitioner, and two dentists, but it also draws on a network of more than 400 volunteer physicians and 50 volunteer dentists. Though the center's funding has decreased in recent months, Stockwell says the new patients have not yet to put a strain on its resources.

"Thankfully, we've not been pushed to the brink where we've had to say, sorry, we're full," Stockwell says.

Due to the increase, the center has changed how it handles patients. New patients meet with a wellness coach at the center's Hope & Healing Center on Union Avenue before seeing a medical doctor. The coach assesses the patient's wellness issues and assigns classes in weight management, smoking cessation, or diabetes support, if needed.

"Health care is more than dispensing a pill," Stockwell says. "With something like diabetes, that doesn't address the root cause."

The Church Health Center doctors hope the new wellness classes will solve some of their clients' medical problems through prevention.

"Some of our Hope & Healing members have had their meds cut dramatically," Stockwell says. "We had one lady lose over 200 pounds. She was on 10 different medicines, and now she's only on three. When she had knee surgery recently, she bounced right back because she's been exercising regularly."

But even with the new focus on wellness, the center's numbers continue to rise.

"A lot of people think we only serve the poor, but we also serve the middle class," Stockwell says. "It's amazing the number of people on our rolls who come in from Germantown. They're people from all walks of life."

--Bianca Phillips

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