While the Affordable Care Act has brought down the number of uninsured adults in the United States, huge gaps persist in how much access to care people really have.
Currently, about 14 percent of Georgians are uninsured. Many of these people have problems—such as mental health issues—that need highly specific care. They often turn to charitable organizations for help.
Kimberly Brooks, 24, has mental health challenges and no insurance coverage. She works part-time in the school nutrition program in the Madison County School District in northeast Georgia. Her job doesn’t come with health benefits because she doesn’t work full-time and was hired on an as-needed basis.
Although she tried to get coverage through the Affordable Care Act exchange, that hasn’t worked out.
“They still wanted outrageous prices. I think they wanted like $90 a month, and I can’t afford that,” Brooks told Georgia Health News. Psychotherapy sessions cost anywhere from $30 to hundreds of dollars per hour.
Brooks has struggled with anxiety, depression and migraines, and there’s the added stress of being unable to afford health coverage. Situations like this can turn into a vicious cycle, because mental health problems limit people’s ability to improve their lives on their own.
Fortunately for Brooks, she’s been able to have weekly sessions with a therapist at Mercy Health Center in Athens for the past two years.
“She has helped me pull myself together and do the things I need to do to get out of the situation I was in," Brooks said of her therapist. "I felt like I was on this loop, like I was just stuck, and she helped me get out of it.”
Her therapist is one of the licensed professionals who volunteer at Mercy, a faith-based clinic that treats uninsured residents of Clarke County and five surrounding counties.
With its own pharmacy, 10 exam rooms, about 800 volunteers and a small staff of about 13 people, the clinic has flourished since opening in 2001, and currently serves about 3,400 patients free of charge.
A bigger need than many realize
There are currently 93 "safety net" clinics in Georgia, more than in any other state.
Donna Looper, executive director of the Georgia Charitable Care Network, says the majority of these clinics provide mental health services to their patients “by partnering with a local community resource.”
Some of the larger clinics provide care within their own facilities, or work with mental health providers who volunteer their services.
Kristi Gilleland, director of Whole Person Care at Mercy, is a social worker who helps individual patients connect with needed resources in the community.
“Patients must be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line for income,” or about $1,485 a month, Gilleland said. Eligibility also depends on whether the person lives within the clinic’s service area, and whether the person has any form of insurance.
Of Mercy’s volunteers, about 20 are therapists. This includes licensed professional counselors, psychologists and Ph.D. psychology students.
In 2012, a formal survey of Mercy patients and found that 47 percent, nearly half of all patients, identified as having a mental health need or a formal mental health diagnosis.
Last year, about 13 percent of Mercy’s patients said they had used the clinic’s behavioral health services in the past, were doing so currently, or were put on a waiting list for help.
“This is just the percentage of patients who were identified as having mental health needs in 2016,” said Gilleland. It doesn’t reflect people who have neither asked for help nor been referred by a health professional, she said.
“This percentage is likely much higher,” said Gilleland.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, only 41 percent of U.S. adults with mental health conditions actually received services during the past year.
Mercy started the behavioral health department in 2012, and has been recruiting volunteers ever since. Gilleland credits the clinic’s success to its volunteer workforce, but says more are needed.
Only licensed professionals, such as Licensed Clinical Social Workers and psychologists, can provide clinical services to Mercy patients. But volunteers from all walks of life can do their part as support staffers, working at the check-in desk or in the back office. All volunteers must be at least 18 years old.
Kimberly Brooks heard about Mercy from her adoptive mother, Deborah Brooks, who also gets routine medical care at the clinic. Deborah took Kimberly into her family after learning about the girl’s strained relationship with her birth mother.
Brooks sees a physician, a neurologist and an OB-GYN at Mercy, and said the clinic has reduced her anxiety and relieved her worries about the cost of medical care.
She currently takes seizure medication in low dosages to prevent migraines.
“Mercy helped me get” the medicine, she said. “They sent me to a neurologist and he gave it to me. I didn’t have to pay anything, so that helped me out.”
“I actually like everything. Everybody does what they can to help you out,” she said about Mercy Clinic. “I would recommend them to everybody.”
Saleen Martin is a graduate student at the University of Georgia working on her master’s degree in journalism. She is from Norfolk, Va., and received her bachelor’s degree in English and education from Virginia Wesleyan College. She has a special interest in topics relating to mental health, education, and children.