Free clinics tied to health care debate

AP News
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Posted: Nov 20, 2009 4:42 AM

A nonprofit group's campaign to hold free medical clinics for the uninsured in three states is turning into a not-so-subtle jab at moderate Democrats to support their party's efforts to reform health care.

More than 800 people have signed up for free care Saturday at a downtown convention center in Little Rock at an event organized by the National Association of Free Clinics _ the Virginia-based association's second free event in the past month under a campaign promoted by MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.

More than 1,000 people showed up at the first, in New Orleans on Nov. 14, and a two-day free clinic is planned in Kansas City, Mo. Dec. 9-10.

Olbermann urged his viewers last month to contribute to the association, saying he wanted mass clinics in the states of the "six senators key to defeating a filibuster against health care reform in the Senate." Since then, more than $1.7 million has been contributed to the group for the clinics.

Olbermann has been targeting Democrats from those states who are seen as crucial to passing Democratic-led health care reform legislation spear-headed by Majority Leader Harry Reid. The Senate is expected to begin debating the legislation, which would include a government-run insurance option, Saturday night.

"I want Sens. (Blanche) Lincoln and (Mark) Pryor to see what health care poverty is really like in Little Rock," Olbermann said on his show last month.

The New Orleans clinic was aimed partly at Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat who has not said how she plans to vote on health care reform, while the Kansas clinic was chosen because it symbolized the need for health care in the Midwest, said Rich Stockwell, senior producer for "Countdown with Keith Olbermann."

"We hear the 46 million in this country without insurance over and over, but those people go largely unseen to most of us. By bringing them all to one place, or a very small percentage, on one day is showing, 'hey, you guys in Washington, you need to get something done to help those people," Stockwell said.

Lincoln, who faces a tough re-election battle next year, has not said whether she supports the legislation, but does say she opposes a so-called public option. She has not said if she would support moving legislation forward for debate, but asserts that a larger overhaul of the nation's health care is needed.

"This one-day clinic is a blessing, but it is not a sustainable way to deliver health care for the thousands of uninsured and underinsured Arkansans," Lincoln said in a statement released by her office.

Pryor said this week he was still undecided on Reid's proposal but that he supports moving the legislation to the Senate for debate.

The campaign has found an advocate in Arkansas Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, a Democrat who has said he is raising money for a re-election bid. He has not said if he is considering running against Lincoln.

Halter helped the association secure space at the Statehouse Convention Center for the free clinic and connected the group with an Arkansas team of health care providers, nonprofit associations and government offices to prepare for the free clinic.

Billing the clinic as a nonpolitical event, volunteers have been told that no petitions, buttons or handouts regarding health care reform will be allowed at the clinic.

"What we're focused on is providing health care to as many Arkansans as we can," Halter said.

Nicole Lamoureux, the association's executive director, credited Olbermann and talk show host Dr. Mehmet Oz with helping raise awareness.

"Anytime someone is talking about the 1,200 free clinics in the United States of America who this year will see 8 million patients with 6 million volunteers and little to no state or federal funding at all is a good thing," Lamoureux said. "Mr. Olbermann and Dr. Oz talking about this cause has just elevated the awareness of the average American about what's going on."

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On the Net:

National Association of Free Clinics: http://www.freeclinics.us/