Marillac Clinic strives to meet increasing patient demand despite potential funding cut

It’s been called one of the key components of a Grand Valley health care system praised as a national model for delivering quality care at below-average prices.

The Marillac Clinic treats low-income and uninsured patients through a combination of paid staff and the volunteer efforts of local physicians. Most patients don’t receive a handout, but must pay a portion of the cost of treatment according to a sliding scale based on income.

In the current economic climate, demand for services has escalated while foundation funds and other donations are more difficult to obtain. Now, the state government might take money earmarked for health care as lawmakers struggle to compensate for a deficit that could surpass $4 billion by 2012.

Voters in 2004 approved a tobacco tax that netted an extra 64 cents from a pack of cigarettes. A portion of the funds was earmarked to pay for health care, and facilities such as the Marillac Clinic used the money in concert with private donations. Marillac was able to expand the safety net to include more low-income patients.

“We were able to give our program to people making less than 250 percent of the poverty level,” said Steve Hurd, executive director of the Marillac Clinic.

Now, the state has informed Hurd that tobacco tax money will likely be funneled into the general fund to try to balance the budget.

Last year, Marillac received about $1 million from the tax. The clinic anticipates the money will dry up July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year for state government.

Marillac has provided health services for 22 years. What began as a safety net for uninsured people has progressed to the point the clinic can help keep people out of hospital emergency rooms through such preventive health treatments as blood pressure exams and tooth fillings.

“Nationwide, 25 percent of our children have their first dental care experience in the hospital emergency room,” Hurd stated in a report on the Marillac website. “Having a parent who has not completed high school or being born into a low-income household dramatically increases the risk for this child to develop dental disease. Eighty percent of the dental disease burden in our country is carried by 20 percent of the people.”

In 2009, Marillac reported 29,000 patient visits, nearly 10 times the number it served the year it opened. The clinic served about 5,700 people last year and demand for services has escalated this year. About 1,000 people apply for assistance each month.

More families are eligible for assistance this year because people lost their jobs, saw their work hours reduced or lost health benefits.

“People are definitely struggling right now,” said Kristy Schmidt, director of community and consumer relations for Marillac.

More upbeat news comes in the form of donations coming in during the holiday season. Marillac will reach its fund-raising goal, Schmidt said. “We’ve had some generous donors come through.”

Said Hurd: “Our community has been really kind about helping us out.”

Volunteers include seasoned professionals as well as student interns finishing their medical or dental studies. The students come from such places as the University of Colorado, Arizona School of Dentistry and Mesa State College nursing program. The volunteers provided an estimated $170,000 worth of services last year, Schmidt said.

Despite the anticipated drop in state funding, Marillac plans to continue treating as many patients as feasible.