ENTER GINSBERG. Inspired by Overstreet-Smith’s decisive action in the face of such massive catastrophe, Ginsberg had collected cash and clothing donations from her Dolph Park neighborhood and made an appointment to bring them to Overstreet-Smith on Nov 10, 2005. When Ginsberg dropped off the donation, Overstreet-Smith engaged her in a conversation about a free medical clinic to serve the needs of poor North Portland residents. Ginsberg agreed it was a good idea.
“She said, ‘Let me know when you get things together,’” remembers Overstreet-Smith. “I said, ‘I’m letting you know now.’” Two minutes later, Ginsberg was driving down N Skidmore St when she got a call on her cell phone.
“I got the key to a place where I think we can house the clinic. Why don’t you come take a look?” Overstreet-Smith asked.
In those few intervening minutes, Overstreet-Smith had called her brother, with whom she co-owned a home that was on the market just blocks from the church. She instructed him to take down the For Sale sign in the front yard. “I found a doctor!” she told him.
When Ginsberg stepped inside 4725 N Williams Ave, she gaped at the glass display cases, tables, chairs and coffeepot. Overstreet’s “clinic” was a former bakery, and it still smelled vaguely of cookies.
“So,” said Overstreet-Smith to a slack-jawed Ginsberg. “When can you get started?”
Today the clinic still smells of baked goods, but that’s owing to a tin of coconut cookies brought in for tonight’s volunteers. North by Northeast’s stable of volunteers numbers more than 50 and includes about a dozen doctors and nurse practitioners. Many of them work at Kaiser, which donated the chairs, tables and exam-room equipment from its warehouse; the company’s Northwest Permanente group also agreed to extend malpractice insurance to Kaiser physicians working here. Other medical supplies come from Medical Teams International, a Tigard-based Christian relief agency; the prescriptions North by Northeast doles out for free are paid for by a partnership between Providence Health System and Portland’s Coalition of Community Health Clinics; Legacy Health System donates the lab work. The clinic’s operating costs, including the salary of recently hired office manager Suzy Jeffreys, are covered by individual donations and a variety of patched-together local grants, like one from Northwest Health Foundation, while Oregon nonprofit Technical Assistance for Community Services provides day-to-day operational support.
The need for free clinics is symptomatic of a health care crisis that extends beyond Oregon’s borders.
Portland’s need for a clinic like North by Northeast is symptomatic of the health care crisis that extends beyond Oregon’s borders. According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau report, 47 million American—or roughly 16 percent of the population—went without health insurance for the whole of 2006, up from about 39 million in 2000. Hispanic and African-American populations are the hardest hit, with uninsured rates of 34 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
The situation in Oregon is even more dismal. A report released by Families USA, a nonprofit that advocates for affordable health care, estimates that 35 percent of Oregonians under the age of 65 went without health insurance at some point in the last year, a 7 percent jump since 2000. A lack of funding for the Oregon Health Plan, the state and federal health care safety net that was designed to provide minimal coverage to very low-income families, is partly to blame: The State Legislature made cuts to the program’s standard benefit package in 2003—and the plan dropped more than 80,000 Oregonians from its rolls. In spite of the state’s growing population, the plan hasn’t accepted new enrollees since 2004.
“My heart is broken because of the stories we hear,” says Ginsberg. Stories like that of Betty Parks. In 2000 the 58-year-old St-Johns resident lost her job and her insurance. Too young for Medicare and ineligible for the Oregon Health Plan, Parks, who suffers from a very manageable, but potentially deadly, problem—high blood pressure—had nowhere to turn. For almost six years, she carried around her empty blood-pressure medication bottle, wanting desperately to refill the prescription, but unable to afford the cost of a doctor visit.