CONWAY — Lee Robertson of Loris railed at midday Thursday about people who don’t work and get free health care while people who have worked hard all their lives and paid taxes, like him, get hounded by health care bill collectors just because they fell on hard times and needed a doctor’s care.
It’s not right, he said, and a system that would give taxpayer-funded health care to freeloaders is nothing but socialism.
As he talked through his feelings, though, and thought about what he was saying, Robertson came to this base conclusion: Anyone who is a citizen of the United States and anyone who is paying taxes, including legally-admitted foreigners, should have health care even if it’s the government paying for it. Illegal immigrants shouldn’t.
“We just don’t have the money to pay for [health insurance],” his wife, Deborah Robertson, said as the two sat in the lobby of Friendship Medical Clinic, a charitable agency on one edge of Conway that provides free or low-cost health care to those who can’t afford it otherwise. “We were lucky enough to find this wonderful clinic.”
She doesn’t know where they’ll fall under the mandated health care insurance that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a ruling announced less than an hour earlier, but worries about anything that might dent their barely enough income.
Neither has the answer, they said at first.
“I’m usually a highly-opinionated guy,” Lee Robertson said, “but I don’t know.”
Friendship Clinic Director Terri Harris and pharmacist-in-charge Patty Gresko are not sure where the ruling will lead them, either, but they’re almost positive it won’t be the same world they walk in now.
“It’s exciting when you think everybody could be covered,” Gresko said, “but I don’t think people know how difficult that is to do.”
Gresko, for instance, hopes that part of the journey will include limits on what drug companies can charge for the medications she dispenses. Harris sees where it could bring an end to the clinic as a charitable organization. And the Robertsons wonder how they’ll afford it if they’re forced to fork even a fraction of their income to buy health insurance.
Dr. Joseph Moyer, a Myrtle Beach allergist who volunteers a half-day each week at the clinic, agreed with Gresko that the ruling will result in a journey. He said that among other things, it will mean that health care providers will need to find more efficient ways to do their jobs, and that lawsuits to protect providers from frivolous lawsuits would help to kick start the process.
“If we have to pay a little bit more in taxes, then so be it,” he said.
In the end, taxpayers will save money because health care coverage for more people will result in lower health insurance premiums, officials say.
“I’m pleased with it,” Moyer said. “We’ve got a health care crisis in the country with too many people without insurance. Something needs to be done about it.”
Deborah Robertson said she and her husband moved here five years ago for an early retirement and with the idea they’d get jobs to supplement what they’d saved for all their lives. Lee Robertson said they had played by the rules, working hard every day, paying their taxes and putting away money for emergencies.
The two didn’t find the expected jobs after moving south from Baltimore, and then Lee Robertson suffered a stroke after a brief stay in a hospital. As a result, Deborah Robertson said, they had to blow through the money she’d saved for retirement and now live on the small amount they get from her husband’s pension and Social Security.
The two are both 59 years old, so they can’t get Medicare. They’ve been denied Medicaid because their small income is not small enough for them to qualify. And they were denied private health insurance because of pre-existing conditions, something the Affordable Healthcare Act outlaws.
Their story is not unlike that of others who seek care from Friendship, which grew from a 1965 project by students at Myrtle Beach High School. Now it relies on grants, charitable donations and hours of volunteer service by doctors and pharmacists such as Gresko to care for nearly 600 one time and full-time patients and dispense more than 10,500 prescriptions a year.
The clinic asks patients who see a physician to leave a $5 donation, but it isn’t required. It charges others such as the Robertsons $4 each for prescriptions.
Harris said that the economy is forcing more and more people into their lobby. Last year, she said, the number of prescriptions ballooned by more than 2,000 over the year before, and the pace this year will certainly push the figure even higher.
Additionally, Gresko added, patients coming into the clinic are sicker than in the recent past, a product of people losing jobs and employer healthcare, and then being reluctant to seek help until they can no longer ignore illnesses.
Because of Thursday’s ruling, Harris said, “Fortunately we will lose a percentage of our patients, which is wonderful.”
If, on the other hand, the clinic’s services become funded by the government, the work won’t seem the same to her as it does now.
“We just want to help poor people,” she said, “It’s the essence of who we are.”
Gresko doesn’t think the need for charity health care services will disappear anytime soon, and she reluctantly concedes that a single payer system is the way to go.
Moyer thinks a single payer system will ultimately evolve from today’s ruling, “whether it’s five years or 50 years. That’s the only way we can provide basic health care to everyone.”
Lee Robertson thinks that, at the least, the government should provide preventive health services to all its citizens and taxpayers.
Then, maybe, those who have to go to a hospital would be required to pay a percentage of their incomes to cover expenses they couldn’t pay outright.
Pensions and Social Security, however, should be exempt from any required health care collections, he said.
And illegal immigrants should get no free care, he said, even if that means that a 5-year-old child of illegal immigrants who was bitten by a snake died because it was against the law to treat him.
“Life is tough,” he said. Once word got around that those were the rules and they were going to be followed, there would be fewer illegal immigrants to worry about.
Deborah Robertson disagreed.
The health care crisis is a complex situation, Gresko pointed out.
“I think it’s going to take a long time to work things out,” she said.
But she believes there need to be changes in the country’s health care delivery system, and perhaps the best thing from the Supreme Court’s ruling is not those changes mandated by the Affordable Healthcare Act.
“It think the good thing about it,” she said, “is that it makes people think about health care.”
Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.