Local organizations partner with volunteer doctors and hospitals to help uninsured

With health insurance still out of reach for many working Floridians, private groups of volunteer doctors, nurses and healthcare providers are increasingly teaming up – and even partnering directly with hospitals –  to provide care, treatment and medicine to people who need it.

More than 400 Central Florida kids recently got back-to-school physicals through Shepherd’s Hope, an Orlando-based nonprofit that provides free medical services to uninsured children and adults.

“Hundreds of uninsured families every year rely on Shepherd’s Hope for their children’s school physicals. And each year, we also provide assistance to help many of these children who require specialty follow-up care,” said Marni Stahlman, president and CEO of Shepherd’s Hope.

About 50 kids from the 10-day medical screening event at Shepherd’s Hope were referred for follow-up care. The organization’s referral program gives sovereign immunity to volunteer physicians and other healthcare partners in the community who provide free specialty care services to Shepherd’s Hope patients at their office or clinic locations.

Founded in 1997, the faith-based nonprofit operates five free-standing health centers in Orange and Seminole counties and treated more than 19,000 patients last year. The program runs with 2,800 volunteer doctors and other unpaid support staff, three community hospital systems, 100 diagnostic and secondary providers and 23 multi-faith partners.

“Our ability to meet the essential health care needs of these families is only possible because of our partnerships with Nemours,” Stahlman said.

The Free Clinic of Florida, which opened its first site in Osceola County this spring, is taking cues from Shepherd’s Hope and is working to create a similar network. The clinic now serves between 10 and 12 patients every other Saturday at the Marydia Community Center in Kissimmee. Clinic officials say they have the capacity to help and are working to bring local hospitals on board.

The Osceola County Council on Aging and the local health department also operate free clinics, and local nonprofits such as the Community Hope Center and Osceola Ministries regularly provide the public with access to mobile medical and dental units.

The Affordable Care Act has expanded health insurance access to millions of Americans since it took effect in 2014. This year, about 1.7 million Florida residents purchased private health insurance plans through healthcare.gov – more than any other state in the union.

But Florida also is one of the states with the highest rates of uninsured populations, too. That’s because of a coverage gap among working folks who earn too much income to qualify for federal subsidies that make insurance affordable and cannot qualify for the state’s Medicaid program.

The health insurance marketplace is only available to those whose employers do not offer health insurance and is subsidized more for those who earn less. And Medicaid is only available to the disabled and mothers with children. Florida lawmakers in 2015 rejected billions in federal aid to expand Medicaid to the working poor, which would have helped close the coverage gap.

But sickness doesn’t discriminate between those who can afford treatment and those who cannot. While many without insurance also go without prescription medication, therapy or other treatment, others seek help in emergency rooms, which typically costs more.