COLUMBUS, Ohio — Unless there’s progress in Washington, the cost of health insurance will only go higher.  Chances are, you know someone without it and others who can’t afford the rising premiums.  Thanks to free clinics, there is hope for those in both camps.

On Thursday nights, the Helping Hands Free Clinic in Columbus, Ohio provides much needed care for those who can’t pay for it. It all begins with patients and workers joining hands in prayer. 

Across Ohio, volunteers operate a total of 100 free clinics, in both big cities and small towns. At the Helping Hands clinic, a steady stream of patients walk in off the street, sometimes hours before it even opens.   

Sharing Christ’s Love

Many free clinics, such as the Helping Hands Free Clinic, are operated by churches who feel its part of their mission to meet the physical needs of people in their community.  In the process, they often meet their spiritual needs as well.  

According to Community Research Partners, Columbus, Ohio, ranked second in percent of new foreign-born residents (those who came to the United States since 2000) compared to other major metropolitan areas. Noreen Palmer says the people at the Helping Hands clinic sees the immigrant population as an opportunity to share the love of Christ.

“We want people to see that we are the helping hands of Jesus in what we do,” she said, “We have a lot of Muslims that come to this clinic and we want them to see our Christian faith and see we treat everybody equally, and feel the love, and they do come and pray with us sometimes.” 

Patients get free antibiotics and other medications, but no narcotics.  

One patient, Crystal, said she came to the clinic after seeing the sign out front.  

“It was a really good experience,” she said, “They were really friendly. They even prayed with me, which I really, really enjoyed. They asked the Lord to heal me and they even brought other people in to pray with me.” 

Volunteers Sacrifice Their Time

Most clinics depend on donations from individuals, churches or businesses. But Deb Miller, Executive Director of the Ohio Association of Free Clinics said it’s the compassionate commitment of tireless volunteers that really keep the clinics afloat year after year. 

“Most of them have worked all day and then they’ll come in and do four, five, six hours of volunteer work in the evening,” she said. 

We’re talking nurses, social workers, physical therapists and of course, doctors. Like Dr. Nancy Henceroth-Gatto who explained why she goes the extra mile to help the sick and poor.

“I’ve been given so much in my life, and I’m so loved by Christ and I just want to turn that love around and reflect it,” she said, “And so my goal is just to let my light shine and help teach everybody else to let that same thing happen.”

Chris Rudin is a registered nurse who’s been volunteering at the Helping Hands Free Clinic for the last nine years. She’s stuck around for so long because she feels the work is so emotionally rewarding.

“It is probably the best job I never got paid for,” she laughs, “Patients come from six or seven different zip codes…drive, public transportation. The people who do not speak English have someone who can interpret for them.”

Free clinics also rely on non-medical volunteers.  Lois Honaker now works the intake desk.  She first started here as a patient and said if it hadn’t been for the Helping Hands Clinics, she might not be here today. 

“I was a total mess,” she recalled, “I’m a diabetic. It was out of control, blood pressure was out of control, the whole 9 yards.”

Most free clinics open one night a week to offer primary care and can also refer patients to specialists.

Some free clinics offer specialty care.  In addition to a general medical clinic, Columbus’ Vineyard Church ( operates a vision, chiropractic and dental clinic.  

Dr. Doug Ferguson is a dentist who volunteers at the clinic at night after a long day at his office. He says giving back is a fundamental aspect of his Christian belief system, saying he tries to “use some of my talents to help other people,” adding that keeping his time to himself “would be selfish and not glorifying to God.  So I try to give back to Him ultimately, but also to other people, as well.” 

Medical School Free Clinic

Although churches typically operate free clinics, they’re not all faith-based.  For example, the Ohio State Medical School operates the Columbus Free Clinic. Resident physicians, like Dr. Patrick Sylvester, who are notoriously overworked, sacrificially volunteer during their precious little free time. 

“There’s always changes in place, trying to increase access to medical care,” he said, “And I think we still have a long way to go. Columbus, Ohio and the greater Columbus area still has a pretty large uninsured population that really falls through the cracks.”

Michael is one of the uninsured. He’s been to the Columbus Free Clinic four times for a number of health issues. 

“This is wonderful,” he said, “I’ve been pleased with the service and the nurses are knowledgeable and the doctors have been nice. They’ve really helped me quite a bit.”

He said health insurance was out of the question.

“I couldn’t afford the monthly payments on it. Or if I did get sick, the deductible,” he explained, “It was offered through my work, but it would have been my whole paycheck.”

So while the future of health care is uncertain the need for free clinics will likely continue, backed by donations and volunteers to keep them running.