Gary Lindahl hardly could walk without horrible pain; even brushing his teeth or shaving could be excruciating.
But he hunched over and coped because that’s all he thought he could do. Mr. Lindahl, now 60, lost his sales job in 2003 for reasons he said were not performance-related.
Roughly a year later his health insurance ended.
The Point Place man and part-time race track announcer found himself in “no man’s land,” too old to attract job offers, too young for certain benefits, and in too much pain.
The aching intensified until he could no longer shrug it off. In 2011, he found Toledo/Lucas County CareNet, a nonprofit agency that provides free or affordable health care to the county’s uninsured. The organization enrolled its first member 10 years ago today, marking a decade in which thousands of low-income residents received health care.
Mr. Lindahl hadn’t been to a doctor in years, and after meeting CareNet providers he learned his body had revolted. His blood pressure was high, both hips — the cause of that terrible pain — needed to be replaced because of cartilage loss, and, most urgent of all, he had prostate cancer.
The safety net of volunteer medical providers and hospitals sprang into action. In November, 2011, his prostate was removed. In August, his left hip was replaced, and about three months ago he had a right hip replacement.
“They gave me more,” Mr. Lindahl said, who now helps share the CareNet message. “I had more to give in life.”
Success stories like his are the reason CareNet was launched and why it’s grown. In 2003, the first year, it had 2,025 members. In 2012, there were 8,411 members.
Lucas County residents whose household income is below 200 percent of the federal poverty level can join the program if they are not eligible for private or public insurance.
CareNet has an annual staffing and operations budget of roughly $400,000. Funding comes from United Way of Greater Toledo, fund-raising efforts, and local hospital systems, including founding partners Mercy and ProMedica. Funds from the city of Toledo dwindled in recent years. In 2012, the city budgeted $5,000 for CareNet. There are no CareNet funds in the proposed 2013 budget, said a city spokesman.
Hospitals donate services, and volunteer physicians, including about 200 specialists, provide medical care to members. CareNet estimates its partners provided roughly $145 million worth of services in its 10 years.
Former Mayor Jack Ford urged the creation of a health-care safety net during a 2002 state of the city speech. He wanted hospitals to work together, an idea that stemmed from attending block watch meetings and listening to older women in the central city talk about family members who had jobs but no health coverage. Once CareNet launched, “people began to see the wisdom of it,” he said.
“It also shows that words can make a difference because that was just a speech that resulted in a great program that has saved lives,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s important sometimes to say things and put it out there in the community vortex because it may be a call to arms for people, and this one was.”
Holly Bristoll, president of ProMedica Bay Park Hospital, and Sister Dorothy Thum, Mercy’s senior vice president for mission and values integration, have been involved since CareNet’s early days. Officials said CareNet is an extension of their institutions’ missions, and Sister Dorothy said it illustrates how the community “can do a lot more together.”
Physicians who volunteer also praised the program. Semi-retired urologist and CareNet board chairman Dr. Art Mancini continues to see members during regular clinics. He credited the hospitals and volunteer physicians for coordinated patient care. Patients, in turn, show their appreciation.
“They are overwhelmed that somebody is really there to answer their questions and listen,” Dr. Mancini said.
Fellow urologist Dr. Steven Ariss also volunteers for CareNet and serves as president of the Academy of Medicine of Toledo and Lucas County. He encourages other doctors to participate.
“In my opinion we should all be able to donate a certain amount of time, no matter how small it is, to give back to the community and to care for the underprivileged,” Dr. Ariss said.
Dr. Greg Rosenthal, a retinal surgeon, gives time to assist CareNet members, many of whom he said desperately want to return to the work force. Lucas County’s Job and Family Services agency will refer eligible people to CareNet, said agency executive director Deb Ortiz-Flores.
CareNet serves a population not covered by Medicaid or that doesn’t meet disability program requirements, she said.
CareNet’s future includes a focus on expanding dental care offerings and responding to changing health-care laws. President Obama’s health-care reforms and Ohio’s potential expansion of Medicaid could mean fewer residents qualify for CareNet, officials said. But, no matter how health insurance evolves, CareNet executive director Jan Ruma believes “there’s always going to be people who don’t have coverage.”
People may always fall through cracks, agreed Toledo-Lucas County health commissioner and CareNet board member Dr. David Grossman.
“I’d love to see a day that the health-care system doesn’t need that, but it ain’t here yet,” he said.
Contact Vanessa McCray at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6065.