The nonprofit PACH clinic in west Phoenix provides health care for undocumented immigrants, refugees and the working poor.

Free Healing

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Valley News Issue: April 2016
Group Free

It was, the man said, a miracle. An infection had ravaged his body, collapsed his lung, and forced him into the hospital – without insurance. He was released with a fistful of prescriptions that would cost $1,000 and told to follow up with his primary care doctor. He had neither. And the hospital staff probably guessed that.

Then Jason Odhner, a registered nurse and co-founder of PACH clinic, visited him at home and found a solution. The man and his family burst into tears, calling him an angel, a miracle, an answer to their prayers. 

“Maybe I should just be glad I was able to help,” Odhner says. “But honestly, it just made me feel angry.” It should be the norm that someone cares enough to save a dying man, he says. “The fact that they saw that as a miracle is frankly an indictment of the entire system.”

As its name suggests, PACH (Phoenix Allies for Community Health) is patching the cracks in a broken system that poor people slip through. The volunteer-led nonprofit provides free health care to the uninsured: undocumented immigrants, refugees and the working poor. The response has been so positive the four-year-old clinic moved in January from a former squat house on Roosevelt Street to a facility in west Phoenix.

But PACH isn’t just a free version of today’s rushed and red-taped rule. On a busy February morning, enthusiastic volunteer nurses and physician assistants discuss strategies for a patient’s care and for enhancing diabetes education in the community. There’s also a life coach/hypnotherapist/reiki practitioner and a woman who conducts sound-healing sessions steeped in native traditions. They’re both lifelong Spanish speakers and, Odhner says, “a lot more sensitive and culturally competent on these complex issues than other people would be.” 

PACH staff frequently spend an hour with a patient and emphasize holistic care, including naturopathy and acupuncture. Undocumented people face waves of emotional turbulence from deportation threats, unscrupulous employers and sexual harassment, Odhner explains. “The idea that we can just throw pills at that and make them healthy is absurd. They need and deserve a very complex level of comprehensive care.”

One of these undocumented patients is Jesús, a diabetic with an amputated toe. During a consultation, Odhner speaks with him about foot care, dietary changes, family and work. Thanks in part to the clinic, Jesús – a freelance laborer – is clearly health-savvy. He avoids soda, steams his vegetables, and goes to church or fixes his truck instead of drinking with his cousins. “[PACH] has helped me a lot,” Jesús says through a volunteer translator, “because I didn’t know I was a diabetic, and now I’m taking medicines for it, and it’s very expensive... Here I’m not paying anything. So if I have money I give a donation.” 

Ebola Tie

During the Ebola epidemic last year, Jason Odhner risked his life treating patients in Liberia for five months. “What I saw in Africa mirrored very much what I see in America,” he says. For decades, African countries have had a woefully inadequate and underfunded medical system, “and the world didn’t care,” Odhner says. But when the Ebola emergency struck, “the global community threw billions of dollars into this, and that money was invested in a way that made very little meaningful change in terms of... benefit[ing] them outside of the immediate Ebola crisis. It was the global health equivalent of discharging somebody from the ICU and saying, ‘Follow up with your primary care provider.’”

In America, the government is not willing to invest in lower-cost primary care for marginalized people, he says. But when their conditions escalate into an emergency, “we’ll spend any amount of resources to save this person’s life.” Afterward, we ignore them again, even though a relapse – and another costly intervention – is practically inevitable.

Next, Jesús gets an EKG and blood work taken onsite. Without PACH, he’d have to get each of these done at separate facilities, for $100-plus a pop, losing a day’s pay each time. That’s why most uninsured people put off seeing a doctor until their condition intensifies into a heart attack or stroke. The patient then suffers and becomes incapacitated needlessly, and hospitals must swallow thousands of dollars in uncompensated treatment.

Free clinics save hospitals millions by treating conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol – the most common conditions seen at PACH – early and inexpensively. In 2013 alone, free and charity clinics in Texas saved the state an estimated $63.8 million, according to the Lone Star Association of Charitable Clinics.

“But we hate to emphasize that here,” Odhner says, “because we’re not trying to say that these people should receive good-quality, respectful, dignified primary care because it’s cheaper. They should get this because they’re humans and because we have a moral duty as a society to provide good-quality primary care for our neighbors.”

PACH sees 30 to 40 patients a week, plus house calls. Though they’d like to serve more, they have limited funds (they’re supported by co-founders Bob and Amy McMullen, plus individual donations). But they’re comfortable growing slowly, Odhner says. “The most important thing for us is to prove that it’s possible to provide exceptionally high standards of care even to patients who face a lot of barriers.”