Photo via Gwen Graham campaign
Ignacio Gonzalez was determined last week to see somebody at the Shepherd’s Hope charitable medical clinic in Longwood, even if he had to wait for a long time. Gonzalez does not have health insurance, and so for three months, he says he did not take his medications for diabetes because they were so expensive and he would have to go without food. His family finally pressured him into seeing a doctor after he started experiencing constant headaches, dizziness, insomnia and tremors, and started veering off the road while driving.
"It's scary when you don't have control of the situation around you," Gonzalez says in Spanish. "Living without insurance, it's like your life is in someone else's hands. Your heath is in someone else's hands, is someone's politics. Your life depends on what they do, on who dictates health policies, and what that does it make it so a lot of people don't come to the clinics because it seems so complicated."
When Gonzalez visited the Longwood clinic, he was helped with his paperwork by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham. Graham, a former member of Congress, was working at the free clinic as part of her "work days," where she spends shifts working with Floridians across the state on farms, in schools and even installing solar panels. Graham is one of three candidates openly vying for the Democratic nomination, including Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Winter Park businessman Chris King.
At the clinic, Graham says she connected with Gonzalez as she helped him through the process and served as a translator between him and his doctors. Graham says a lot of Floridians, like Gonzalez, fall into the health care gap in Florida because Gov. Rick Scott and the state Legislature did not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. If Republicans in Congress repeal Obamacare, it could have devastating effects for 1.5 million Floridians that the Urban Institute
projects would lose coverage by 2022.
"Mr. Gonzalez had to make a choice between buying food or medication, and he chose food," she says. "We're putting people in that position. For healthcare in Florida, we need to take a hard look at where our priorities are, and how do we make sure we continue to support and not make it more difficult for centers like this to flourish and provide care."
Graham says politicians in Florida have let ideology get in the way of making decisions that should be completely devoid of that.
"What I'm committed to doing in my run for governor and in my service as governor is to get our state on the right track," she says. "It should be the governor of Florida's responsibility if you're faced with something like rising sea levels, even if you don't want to say the term climate change. Politics is keeping people that are in office from doing what is right for the state and for the people of the state. As governor, I'm going to make sure that never happens."
Marni Stahlman, president and CEO of Shepherd’s Hope, says the organization saw 304 patients in Orange County during its first year. Now with five charitable clinics spanning Orange and Seminoles Counties, the organizations attended to 17,000 patients last year who are uninsured and not eligible for government health care programs.
"The failure of the state of Florida to expand Medicaid and in fact in the last legislative session, put deep cuts into that program, has significantly affected and contributed to the number of patients that we see here because the eligibility requirements do not extend far enough to capture the number of people that are finding themselves uninsured," Stahlman says. "So we have kind of a perfect storm, where we have a failure to expand Medicaid that would have brought more people under coverage programs and then we have people that have fallen through the gap of ACA where they're making too much to qualify for the subsidy that's available through the federal exchange and as a result of that, they're going without insurance."
Most of the people who come to the clinic are part of the working poor, toiling in Central Florida's tourism industry, though Stahlman says some clients have included school teachers and a family member of a state representative. In Orange and Seminole Counties, Stahlman says 450,000 people are uninsured and 11 percent of them are children. Shepherd’s Hope plans to open a sixth location in east Winter Garden by 2018.
"Our position at Shepherd's Hope is we are the voice of the uninsured here," she says. "We're available for individuals that find themselves uninsured. Regardless of what's going to happen on the federal level, we're going remain in place. The impact for us is are we going to see 17,000 or 27,000. Our community and our state should be taking care of these people."