Despite health reform, many still need Helping Hands

Mar. 11, 2014 @ 07:51 AM

One day last year, Lilly Skok Bunch struck up a conversation with a patient who was picking up his medications at Lenoir’s Helping Hands Clinic.

The man handed over the $5 donation that Helping Hands, a nonprofit that aims to provide medical care for uninsured people who don’t qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, suggests. He seemed to be in a good mood, so Bunch, the clinic's executive director asked him why.

He told her he had gotten a job at a furniture factory. He’d be making only a little more than he made on unemployment, he told her, but he was happy to be working again.

Though he’s now employed, the man Bunch spoke with is still a patient at Helping Hands. He didn’t gain insurance through his new job, he wasn’t eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, and he didn’t meet the qualifications for discounted insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Since the ACA was implemented Jan. 1, Bunch has fielded questions from donors and community members wondering how the law has affected Helping Hands. The short answer, Bunch said in an interview last week: very little.

“(Some) people in North Carolina still don’t have insurance,” Bunch said. “They’re still coming to Helping Hands.”

The nonprofit’s staff has tried to make that clear in recent fundraising pushes. And they’ll direct many of the funds raised at the annual Pot of Gold fundraiser this Friday to maintaining and improving services for patients who still fall within that gap.

“There’s really no difference today than there was before January,” Bunch said. “Events like Pot of Gold are no less important than they ever were.”

The idea behind Helping Hands is to fill the gap between Medicare and Medicaid – which have strict requirements for which many uninsured Americans do not qualify – and purchased medical coverage.

And that gap still exists, Bunch said.

The Affordable Care Act provides health insurance subsidies to help people whose income is in a range from the poverty level to 400 percent of the poverty level. But people whose income is below the poverty level were meant to be served by an expansion of federally funded Medicaid plans.

But North Carolina chose not to expand Medicaid, leaving the 2,500 patients at Helping Hands, who are among a total of 8,000 adults in Caldwell County whose income is below the poverty level, without health coverage.

Since January, the clinic has seen “maybe 10” people apply for Helping Hands’ services and find out, during enrollment, that they qualified for a discounted plan under the ACA.

And the rest? They still need Helping Hands, Bunch said.