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Churches go beyond debating health care reform

Churches go beyond debating health care reform

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Churches go beyond debating health care reform

By Jenna De Marco | Jan. 17, 2010 {1124}

NOTE: This article is the fourth in a series on ways ministries in the Florida Conference are helping individuals and families cope with the current economic downturn. Links to the first three articles are included in the "related stories" section at the end of this article.

While the country debates health care reform, several Florida Conference churches are taking action and providing ministries that specifically help people who don’t have health insurance.

And with the rise in unemployment, coordinators of these programs say requests for a variety of no-cost health care services have only increased during the past two years.

Dr. Jeff Thill, a volunteer at a Shepherd’s Hope health center, examines patient Geannie Figuereo. File photo by Tim Griffis. Photo #08-0731. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0787, 1/18/08.

Shepherd’s Hope is one ministry that has witnessed the effects of the nation’s slowed economy. A nonprofit, interfaith organization founded in the 1990s by the Rev. Dr. Bill Barnes, senior pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando, Shepherd’s Hope operates nine clinics — staffed by volunteers — that serve members of the greater Central Florida community who lack adequate access to health care. Patients who are eligible for services have incomes at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, are uninsured and not eligible for government assisted health care programs, according to the Shepherd’s Hope Web site.

In the past year, the organization has seen “a significant shift” in its clientele, Barnes said. Previously, the clinics served primarily low-income, uninsured workers. They still serve that demographic, but now higher numbers of out-of-work professionals without health insurance are being helped.

“Across the board, the demand for our care is way up,” Shepherd’s Hope President Cindi Kopelman said. “The unemployment rate — not to mention the recession — has really impacted people’s access to health care.”

Florida’s unemployment rate reached 30-year highs this year, topping 10 percent from May to October and reaching 11.5 percent in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( The United States Census Bureau reported in September that an estimated 3.7 million, or 20 percent, of Florida’s more than 18 million residents lack coverage. Across the country, more than 46 million people had no health insurance coverage in 2008 — more than one in every six, or 17.4 percent, of the population under age 65, according to the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation, a non-profit, private foundation focusing on health care issues facing the United States (

At Shepherd’s Hope clinics, the increased demand for no-cost care translated into an expected 16,000 patient visits in 2009; in 2008 the clinics managed 13,000 patient visits. Last year the organization reached another milestone — serving its 100,000th patient.

Clinics typically are open in the evenings, when doctors, nurses and other medical professionals are more likely to be available. Various faith organizations take responsibility for each clinic.

Even with its success in helping additional patients, Kopelman estimated 4,000 people would be turned away in 2009, based on a ratio of volunteer staff to patients.

Volunteer Nann Carmine organizes donated medications to be given to the clinic’s low-income patients. File photo by Tim Griffis. Photo #08-0733. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0787, 1/18/08.

“What happens is that every night at our health-care centers, people are lined up outside the door for one to three hours (before opening time),” she said. Volunteers must assess how many of those patients can be seen by the medical professionals in the number of hours each clinic is open.

Although demand for services is on the rise, there has been a “huge influx of volunteers” too, Kopelman said. The Rev. Gary Rideout, an associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Winter Park, helps coordinate about 30 Shepherd’s Hope volunteers from his church. He also periodically volunteers as an eligibility specialist, helping patients with paperwork and listening to their stories. His church serves at the Hungerford Health Center in Eatonville on Thursday nights.

Volunteers often are profoundly affected by the patients’ situations, Rideout said. Many feel “they are fulfilling God’s vision to help take care of the poor,” he said. “And in return, we get blessed by just being with the people who are the patients there … and hearing their stories of strength and fortitude to get the things that we take for granted.”

‘So many more’ need health care

The nonprofit Helping Hands Clinic — housed on the campus of First United Methodist Church in Gainesville — offers free health services to the community’s homeless population.

During the recession, the clinic’s patient load has increased, director Randy Stacey said.

“We used to see three or four new (patients per clinic), and we’re running eight or nine new ones a night,” Stacey said. “And one night we had 11. … Every new one you bring in is potentially a return patient. There’s so many more people out there who need care.”

On Monday evenings, the clinic provides medical, social and psychiatric care; acupuncture; prescription drug assistance; and community referrals for men and women. And the recent addition of a women’s health program on Thursdays has grown in attendance and assistance during the past 18 months. The focus is on health education and preventive services. A three-year, $99,000 grant from the Blue Foundation for a Healthy Florida Inc. enabled the expansion, Stacey said.

Each week, 25 to 30 homeless women visit a nearby church building — Selle Hall — to shower, change clothes, get hygiene items, watch movies, eat a home-cooked meal or just relax. Clients call the collection of services “the spa” for its comforting atmosphere, Stacey said.

Brendan Shortley, administrative backup for  Helping Hands Clinic, checks a patient’s blood pressure. Photo courtesy of Helping Hands Clinic. Photo #10-1368.

Through that involvement, the women are gradually getting connected to more specific clinical services, now offered on Thursdays, including nursing assistance, acupuncture treatments and mental health care by psychiatrists.

“(We) bring them in with what they want, and eventually help them get what they need,” Stacey said.

Stacey hopes to recruit new doctors and nurse practitioners who can further develop the medical care on Thursdays and supplement the Monday night efforts.

“The whole key to the whole thing is volunteers, and we probably have about 60 active ones,” Stacey said. “The key is the medical providers, and we can always use more.”

Zenta Gomez, the clinic’s volunteer coordinator, was drawn to Helping Hands because of her interest in social issues. Most of the clinic’s clients have been homeless less than one year, she said.

“I always think it’s important that people understand how similar everyone is to each other. … We have women sitting in our program that have college degrees or were professionals in the past,” Gomez said. “If you have the opportunity to get to know a homeless person, then you should.”

Helping Hands program assistant Martha Duffy plans to go to medical school next year. In the meantime, her mission is to continue working with the underserved homeless community — a job she finds rewarding.

Duffy recalled being affected recently by an experience with a client who is the same age as she is. When the clinic celebrated its clients’ August birthdays by singing to this woman, Duffy noticed the woman’s face radiated joy.

“That was a really good moment for me,” she said.

School physicals draw neighbors to health, ministry fair

Churches have a responsibility to care for their community’s health needs. So says Grant Corrigan, a registered nurse and member at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Largo.

The opportunity to present some preventive techniques and ideas to the community and congregation “is a key element in health-care reform,” Corrigan said.

Corrigan’s church did that in August at its third annual health and ministry fair. About 85 adult volunteers and 30 youth worked on the event, which featured 65 health or ministry booths, including blood pressure screenings and free school physicals. About 550 bags of school supplies were also distributed.

Community nurses from various faith communities were among the health-care professionals providing services and information at the health and ministry fair. Photo courtesy of St. Paul United Methodist Church. Photo #10-1369.

“I think (the recession has) had a tremendous impact,” Corrigan said. “A number of people that attended this year for the free school physicals were there because they either could not afford one or had lost their family health insurance.”

The fair attracted nearly 1,100 people from the surrounding area. Five physicians, assisted by eight nurses, conducted 143 school physicals, an estimated value of $22,000.

The church incurred no cost to offer the fair because donations from the congregation covered the event’s small budget, Corrigan said. The 33 health-related businesses with booths also donated door prizes.

The event’s attendance has grown during the past three years, organizers say, with most of the participants coming from outside the St. Paul congregation. One result of this outreach, Corrigan said, is that the church has had new people visiting Sunday worship and the church’s youth group.

The fair is an extension of St. Paul’s faith community nurse program, which provides monthly health information to the congregation.

Information about Shepherd’s Hope, including a list of its clinic locations, is available at More information about Helping Hands is available at

Related stories

Churches tackle unemployment with job support groups

Church-run courses help families overcome financial stress

Churches, outreach ministries expand food programs during recession

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**De Marco is a staff writer for e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.