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Orthodox Health Center Opens in Pittsburgh

Despite the best efforts of many policy experts and lawmakers to bring universal healthcare coverage to all Americans, 16% of the population – 45 million people – still do not have health insurance, a number that is higher in 2014 than it was in 2008, according to a recent Gallup poll. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) has exacerbated many of the reasons that people do not have coverage and 2% of the American workforce, more than 3 million people, have lost their employer-sponsored coverage due to loopholes and other consequences of the Act, making the net benefit of the Act debatable.   

But this blog post is not written to discuss why the ACA is, or is not, succeeding.  Rather, it is written to show how Orthodox Christians are responding to a problem in the United States that has been pervasive for decades and will continue with no clear end in sight. 

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, FOCUS North America recently opened the first comprehensive Orthodox health care facility in America. The FOCUS Pittsburgh Free Health Center targets uninsured individuals and provides them with access to quality physical and mental health care as well as pharmaceutical and laboratory services.  In addition, The FOCUS health center is a place where skilled Orthodox medical practitioners can put their talents to good use for the glory of God and in service to those in need right here in America. 

FOCUS North America is an Orthodox Christian faith-based nonprofit organization that provides sustainable jobs and permanent housing solutions for the homeless and working poor families across America.  FOCUS has operations and activities in 50 cities in the US and Canada.

Why did FOCUS extend its services into healthcare? Because it’s not much good to give someone a job or a place to live if they are not healthy enough to maintain them.  It is very difficult to sustainably transition a person or a family from homelessness, poverty and dependency to a life of self-sufficiency without providing for their health.  Offering free comprehensive healthcare and health-related services is a natural fit with FOCUS’ work to transform the lives of the homeless and working poor in America.

Why Pittsburgh?  Because western Pennsylvania, and specifically the 10-mile radius around the City of Pittsburgh has an extremely high, and increasing, population of working-aged people who are uninsured.  According to a study by the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, there are approximately 142,000 working uninsured individuals and family members in the greater Pittsburgh region, with approximately 70,000 living within 10 miles of Pittsburgh.

The FOCUS Pittsburgh Health Center is organized and managed as a Volunteer in Medicine type clinic, which is specifically designed to provide care to uninsured working adults that fall through the cracks in today’s health care system.  In today’s environment, there exist government programs, such as Medicaid and CHIP, that provide healthcare to all children, the elderly, and to adults receiving public assistance.  On the other end of the spectrum are those people who have employer-sponsored healthcare insurance.  The FOCUS clinic specifically targets and serves working adults caught in the gap between these groups, ensuring that they have access to regular and high-quality healthcare. 

But the FOCUS healthcare initiative is about more than just numbers and gaps.  It is about the faces, names and stories behind these statistics.  Each day we meet men, women and families who are struggling to get by. We meet people like Linda, whose life was upended by a medical condition that turned deadly.

Linda and her husband Kevin were working full-time, he as a janitor, she as a nursing aide. With three children, they were barely making ends meet. The children qualified for free health insurance through the county, but Linda and Kevin weren’t eligible.

Kevin suffered from hypertension, but without insurance his condition went untreated. He died suddenly, at age forty, from a heart attack that could have been prevented by routine checkups and hypertension maintenance that is available to anyone with insurance.  With Kevin’s income gone, Linda was unable to pay the rent and so she and her children were evicted from their apartment. When the family came to FOCUS, they were living in their car.   It was our encounter with Linda that set FOCUS on the path to establish a free health center, understanding that health is equally as important as job or a house.

The FOCUS health center model addresses psychosocial, physical, mental and spiritual aspects of care. Rooted in the Orthodox Faith, we understand that all of these are essential to a person’s total wellbeing.  By capturing all aspects of care, and making the FOCUS health center an easily replicable model, we hope to expand an Orthodox Christian presence in health care. 

While the FOCUS health center in Pittsburgh is designed to operate five days per week, the model that FOCUS built was specifically created so that a health center could be replicated and operated on an intermittent basis in many different types of facilities, such as a church hall, office building, or classrooms, serving as a witness to the Orthodox faith and providing care that is desperately needed to those that live nearby. 

FOCUS health centers are staffed by Orthodox Christian volunteer physicians and other health care providers.  Medical malpractice liability protection under the FOCUS model is provided by the federal government and the Federal Tort Claims Act for free to any physician or medical staffer serving at a FOCUS clinic. 

Using this model and all its advantages, FOCUS hopes to launch more health centers in areas where Orthodox physicians are available to donate their time and skills to serve the uninsured and working poor.  We all know that our faith teaches to love and serve those in need.  The FOCUS health center model is just one way that skilled Orthodox medical practitioners can put their talents to good use for the glory of God and as a witness to the practical teachings of our Orthodox Faith.  

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