Ithaca Free Clinic

A Note from GreenStar: Ithaca Free Clinic is one of 10 local nonprofit organizations voted among GreenStar’s membership to be a 2022 Partner for Change. Ithaca Free Clinic is the August2022 featured Positive Change recipient. Read more about our Partners for Change program here.

By David Durrett – a current intern at GreenStar Food Co+op, David Durrett is a lifelong resident of Ithaca as well as a graduate of Ithaca College. He is a freelance reporter whose work has also appeared in Tompkins Weekly and The Ithaca Voice, among other publications. 

The Ithaca Health Alliance, GreenStar’s Partner For Change for the month of August 2022, operates the Ithaca Free Clinic, which provides free medical and holistic care to residents who do not have insurance, are underinsured or need treatment that is not covered by their insurance.

In 1997, the Ithaca Health Alliance was founded by Ithaca community members who did not have health insurance. Since then, it has remained a community organization, with community members running the organization and providing services. IHA opened the Ithaca Free Clinic in 2006. The Free Clinic has no residency requirements for those seeking its aid.

” We’re providing a service that someone’s health services won’t cover, ” Norbert G. McCloskey, executive director of the IHA, said.

Ithaca Free Clinic Building

Ithaca Free Clinic Building at 521 W Seneca St.

According to Norbert, the uninsured are not the only ones who have difficulty paying for medical expenses. He said many insured people need medical care that their insurance providers do not cover, and that many insurance policies have high deductibles or copays. As a result, over 100 million Americans have medical debt, and many declare bankruptcy over that debt, including those with insurance.

“We just have a medical institution here in America where medical care is treated as a commodity,” Norbert said, “and you pay for access to medical care and if you don’t have the money to access that care, you don’t get that care.”

The Ithaca Free Clinic offers a variety of services to those whom it helps. It offers many kinds of health care, such as telehealth appointments, free employment physicals, and vaccinations. It has a wide variety of practitioners working for it, with different specialties and styles of medicine, such as herbalists, optometrists and chiropractors.

Norbert said enrolling people in Medicaid can often get them more help than the IHA can with their program. As such, the Free Clinic helps people determine whether they qualify for Medicaid, and if they do qualify, helps them enroll.

“If we can get someone enrolled in Medicaid, a Medicaid insurance program, they have access to a wider range of services than we can provide here,” Norbert said. “So we try to make sure that if someone’s eligible for a Medicaid plan, we can get them into one.”

According to Norbert, once people get signed up with Medicaid, they can still seek out the Ithaca Free Clinic’s services if they are not covered under Medicaid.

Ithaca Free Clinic can provide free insulin

Ithaca Free Clinic can provide free insulin.

The Free Clinic not only provides free medical care, but also assists with financial advocacy. This includes helping people understand their medical bills and negotiating with medical providers in order to lower or eliminate patients’ medical debt.

All services are provided by community volunteers, which range from working or retired doctors to Cornell University and Ithaca College pre-med students. There is a significant amount of turnover as the college volunteers graduate, but Norbert is glad that many volunteers gain professional experience that proves useful in the future.

“We’ve had 20 or 30 of our volunteers go on to medical school, since I’ve been here,” Norbert said, “and it’s always exciting to see their careers unfold as time goes by.”

The Free Clinic is always searching for new volunteers, and has an application form for prospective volunteers available on its revamped website.

The Clinic currently has between 60 and 70 volunteers working for it, a sharp decrease from having more than 200 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because COVID-19 safety protocols required the IHA to limit how many volunteers are on site to follow best practices for social distancing. Other safety practices include requiring people to pass a screening and wear a mask before being admitted, never allowing more than two patients in the waiting room at any time, installing air purification units, and sanitizing all surfaces.

“Just basically doing everything that we possibly could, that any other normal organization would do to make sure that we’re not putting people in harm’s way,” Norbert said.

As a result of the pandemic, the Free Clinic is no longer able to offer walk-in clinics, and patients are admitted by appointment only, so the clinic can clean and disinfect between patients. According to Norbert, the clinic could serve between 20 and 25 patients in three hours when walk-in clinics were feasible, three times what they can do now, so he hopes to reopen the walk-in clinics when doing so becomes feasible.

Fundraising is another challenge for the Free Clinic, as there are fewer donors due to the state of the economy. However, Norbert says the money is well-spent, with each dollar of donations allowing the Clinic to return $5 worth of healthcare services to the community.

Norbert hopes to serve more people with the Free Clinic, from offering three clinics per week rather than two to having the optometrists come by twice a month, rather than only once a month. He urged people to spread the word about the Free Clinic’s services to those who need it.

“Everybody has a friend or a family member or a neighbor who doesn’t have health insurance for whatever reason,” Norbert said. “Let them know that we’re a safe place, a place that they can trust. All they have to do is call down here and we’ll do our best to get the medical care that they need.”