Growing up in the Midwest, I belonged to a family and close-knit community who eschewed health insurance. This was largely for religious reasons. The church we belonged to believed that any “thought for the morrow” was antithetical to their faith. God would take care of them as he did the “lilies of the field.” Insurance of any kind went against this strong belief. We were not vaccinated because this ran counter to the belief that faith in God would sustain you and if you were going to get sick, that was God’s will. These beliefs persisted until one community member’s baby nearly died. After rushing him to the hospital, where providers and medical science saved his life, the leader of the church decided that providers and health care were OK, just not insurance. Insurance meant you didn’t really trust in God’s plan for you.
Today, I hold a master’s degree in public health and find myself volunteering at Oasis Free Clinics in Brunswick, Maine. How did that happen?
I moved away from the Midwest to New York City when I was 20-nothing to pursue a career as an artist. Nobody told me that there is no benefits package for that gig, but I figured that out slowly, one illness at a time. I learned to eat raw garlic at the first itch in my throat. I excelled at home remedies of every kind: anything to avoid a clinic or hospital, and the inevitable bill I could not pay. After years of this, I got my first real job with benefits and within six months had every kind of checkup you can imagine and had my wisdom teeth pulled. After I left that job, my former employer actually contacted me to ask for money to cover part of the costs I’d incurred — they were so high. That was my introduction to coinsurance. I had no idea.
When I decided to go back to school, I studied political science, quickly pivoting to public health policy: specifically, access to care. I finished my MPH just as the imperfect and well-meaning Affordable Care Act (ACA or “ObamaCare”) was passed. This massive piece of legislation tried to do a few things to increase access to health insurance: expand Medicaid to those with income just above the poverty level, reform private insurance so that individuals and small groups could purchase reasonably priced insurance like large groups do, and include the use of better treatment alternatives, such as “medical homes” to lower the cost of care across the board. The primary goal was to provide more people with access to affordable health insurance. This goal relied on the reform of a broken health system with some of the highest costs of care in the world.
After my graduation, I went to work for the City of New York, for a program that focused on access to care issues for individuals and small businesses – those who are less likely to have employer-sponsored health insurance. After that, I worked for the New York State Department of Health, implementing one of the very first health care “Exchanges” brought into existence by the ACA, called “New York State of Health.” The next logical step on this new career path seemed (to me) to find work at a CO-OP – a Consumer Operated and Oriented Plan – again, made possible by the advent of the ACA. The idea behind the CO-OP was to allow states and other entities to form nonprofit, member-led and member-operated health insurance organizations that could offer competitive health plans to individuals and small groups. Not all the CO-OPs were doing well, but the one in Maine, where my husband had grown up, was thriving. Incidentally, we were actively looking to move to Maine. I was thrilled to work at Maine Community Health Options in Lewiston. A few years later, I was equally thrilled to find work at Bowdoin College, where my family had settled. For the first time in many years, however, I found myself without a tie to that tender spot in my heart that is public health.
When a friend told me about Oasis Free Clinics, the description immediately touched a thematic chord in me. Oasis provides medical and dental services and connections to community resources at no charge, to low income adults without health insurance in our community and surrounding areas. Even before I started to volunteer, I fell in love with the mission, vision, and especially the people. Here was a place that I understood in my bones. Care for those without insurance is still so desperately needed in this country. And our community is so fortunate to have Oasis here to provide this care. What I have learned in my short time at Oasis is that this is the very best kind of care. It is given from the heart; it is not tied to a contractual obligation that may disappear if you lose work or find yourself suddenly without a safety net.
When I was young, we went to the local University’s free dental program where they provided excellent care for members of the community without dental insurance. A doctor in our area who was familiar with the church and its members offered us free care – throat cultures and basic physical checkups. I realize now that that program and those providers were our “oasis.”
I’ve come to believe that just about anyone, at any time, could find they need care that they cannot access or afford. Oasis Free Clinics answers this need for our community. It has enriched my life to be a part of this vibrant organization, and I’m incredibly grateful for its existence.
Heather Rankin is a member of the Oasis Free Clinics Board of Directors. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community.
Oasis Free Clinics is a non-profit, no-cost primary care medical practice and dental clinic, providing exceptional, patient-centered care to uninsured members of our community. For more information, please call 721-9277 or visit www.OasisFreeClinics.org.