Op-Ed: Stimulus put to good use at health center

By:  Robert McCartney
Washington Post

If you're curious about whether last year's mammoth federal stimulus package did any good, I suggest you visit the neighborhood medical clinic tucked in the back of a low-rise office building just off the Prince William Parkway in Woodbridge.

The Greater Prince William Community Health Center came within two weeks of closing in May 2008. It nearly missed meeting its payroll after the county government ended a $450,000 annual subsidy, partly because of unhappiness that some of the clinic's patients are illegal immigrants.

That would have been a hardship for the swelling number of people who lack health insurance or have inadequate coverage. For them, the center's cheap rates -- typically $45 for an office visit and $5 for a 90-day prescription -- are a godsend.

But Frank J. Principi, a county supervisor and professional crisis manager hired to shut the doors, decided to try to keep them open. The key proved to be getting $1.5 million over two years from the stimulus package, whose first anniversary was last week. That more than replaced the lost county money and encouraged local hospitals, foundations and private donors to provide additional help.

Now, the clinic not only remains in business but also is about to double in . It's adding much-needed services for expectant mothers, dental care and mental health counseling.

The stakes were "literally life and death," Principi said. "You wouldn't believe the number of people who come into our waiting room and have cancer and don't know it."

There's a price, of course. The stimulus program added $862 billion to the nation's debt. The clinic's presence also makes it more comfortable to some extent for some illegal immigrants to live here.

Nevertheless, I believe this sliver of stimulus dollars was well spent. It helped serve the vulnerable people who earn too much to be eligible for Medicaid but not enough to afford insurance. As for the illegal immigrants, the federal government has shown it's incapable of keeping them out. They're here, many do a lot of menial work for low pay and we ought to make sure they get decent health care.

In an interview at the center, a 49-year-old female patient suffering from asthma, hypertension and diabetes said she couldn't afford to go anywhere else. Her family lost its health insurance when she quit a real estate administration job three years ago for health reasons. Her husband, who works in landscaping, doesn't have insurance. She comes to the clinic at least once every three months and has brought her 9-year-old son there for treatment of flu and an ear infection.

"It's like a little piece of heaven, for sure. They help you. They are very knowledgeable," said the woman, who spoke on condition that she be identified only as E. Rose, her first initial and middle name. She did so for privacy's sake and not because she lacks documents; she became a naturalized U.S. citizen more than two decades ago.

Another middle-aged woman, who said she came to the United States from Central America in 2008 and acknowledged that she's not a citizen, said she didn't know of another place to get regular, low-cost diabetes treatment and medication. She makes $9 an hour working 30 to 35 hours a week preparing salads at a restaurant. "They're very attentive" at the clinic, she said. "They allow me to ask questions."

Illegal immigrants are only a part of the wide range of the 6,000 patients, including many military families, served by the clinic. The need for affordable health care has been rising steadily in the recession, especially among adults who've lost their jobs and college graduates who can't find jobs with benefits. Appointments at the clinic have risen 24 percent since July.
The clinic delivers primary care much more cheaply than hospital emergency rooms, which have higher overhead. That's one reason why the Prince William Regional Chamber of Commerce named the clinic "Non-Profit Business of the Year" for 2009.

"We really do need affordable health care. It takes some of the burden off our emergency rooms," said Michael Hill, a Woodbridge Realtor who is chairman of the chamber's awards committee. "A healthier community is better for everyone, and it attracts business."

The clinic has been politically controversial, partly because Principi represents Woodbridge as a Democratic supervisor. He emphad the role that a fellow Democrat, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), played in helping to get the stimulus money.

On the Republican side, Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart said it would have made more sense to spend the stimulus funds on the Prince William Area Free Clinic. He said it has been established longer -- 16 years vs. four for Principi's clinic -- and serves more patients. He also said he didn't like to see taxpayer funds go to illegal immigrants.

Principi noted that his center is open six days a week, whereas in Woodbridge, the free clinic is open only one evening a week in addition to a monthly clinic at a church.

He also said his center fills a gap in the income spectrum by serving those who can afford to pay small amounts. The free clinic typically serves people who can't afford to pay anything.
Politics aside, it's gratifying to see government money going to such good use.