Health clinic for the uninsured faces more challenges during pandemic

Phoenix Allies for Community Health provides free primary care to more than 400 patients who have no insurance or other access to health care. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought even more challenges to this all-volunteer clinic. (File photo by Alex Valdez/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Patients stand by for a phone call that could change their lives. They’re on a waitlist, but not for a kidney or heart transplant or some rare procedure. In this case, the wait is for basic health care.

Even in the best of times, Phoenix Allies for Community Health has a line of patients awaiting its services. But the COVID-19 pandemic has brought even more challenges to this all-volunteer effort, as well as greater demand for help.

The nonprofit provides free primary care to more than 400 patients – many of them immigrants – who have no insurance or access to health care. Because of the wait for care, once a patient obtains insurance through an employer or the government, the clinic refers them elsewhere so that volunteers can focus on helping those with no other means to see a doctor.

“That’s our focus: The people who don’t have any other way to receive medical attention,” said Imelda Ojeda, a social worker who began volunteering with Phoenix Allies in 2019 and now is president of its board.

“Most of the time, we have patients who already have a diagnosis or who already have a condition, but they haven’t been able to take care of it for some time due to lack of insurance, lack of resources,” she said.

Ojeda noted that the pandemic has disproportionately affected many of the same clients that Phoenix Allies serves. Patients have lost jobs and been left to choose between paying for rent or medications. Others at risk of developing more severe illness from COVID-19 have required help with transportation to avoid using buses or other mass transit.

“We have had a few people reach out to us asking for emergency assistance … because they were about to be evicted from the house,” she said. “Another barrier that we have seen is that even though our providers offer telehealth services, some patients don’t even have access to a working phone, let alone any computer.”

Jason Odhner, a registered nurse who co-founded the clinic, added: “Our nation’s health care system has been flawed for decades, but the pandemic over the course of the last year has put a magnifying glass on the issue.”

Nine percent of those living in the U.S. – and 11% of Arizonans – have no private or public health insurance coverage. Among Hispanics, the percentage of uninsured increases to nearly 19%, according to the Census Bureau.

And experts worry the fallout from COVID-19 has worsened the problem. Research by the Kaiser Family Foundation shows Hispanic adults have been hit harder by the pandemic, with an estimated 59% reporting a job loss or lost income in their households.

Ojeda cites Arizona’s proximity to the border with Mexico as a factor in the state’s uninsured rate. Of the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without permission, about 280,000 reside in Arizona, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Those in the country without authorization are not eligible for government-funded insurance under the Affordable Care Act.

“It is very popular here in Arizona for some of our immigrant community who are able to travel outside of the country to go to the border for medical care because it’s cheaper,” Ojeda said.

“But unfortunately, a good number of our patients are not able to leave the country. So that poses another barrier for them to be able to get any type of medical care or access to any doctor.”

Roberto Montoya has been a patient of Phoenix Allies for seven years. His son, Antonio, brought him to the clinic when they no longer could afford the $25 fee required at another facility.

Related story

“During that time, there were moments where we didn’t have anything for the consultations, and I was feeling really bad,” Montoya said in Spanish.

Montoya and his wife both struggle with diabetes, and at times his glucose levels would spike into the dangerous 300 to 400 range. Since coming to Phoenix Allies, his levels have dropped from 110 to 117.

But the clinic helps in other ways, too. Volunteers have delivered medications to his home and donated to help with groceries.

“They have given us a lot of help … when we most needed them,” Montoya said.

Mikayla Isosaki, a volunteer who helps direct operations at the clinic, has seen firsthand how the pandemic has affected patients who already were struggling. Phoenix Allies produced videos in English and Spanish to provide patients with more information about how to protect themselves during COVID-19.

“We have a few patients lately, especially during the pandemic, they’ve been having a hard time. They’re like, ‘My husband doesn’t have any health care; could he become a patient here?’” Isosaki said.

“They’re just going through so much,” she said. “They’re making the best of what they’ve got.”

News Reporter, Phoenix

Jake Hedeby expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism.