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In Arlington Free Clinic, Service Depends On Chance

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Jody Kelly, director of clinical administration at the Arlington Free Clinic, conducts the lottery for health care.
Michael Pope
Jody Kelly, director of clinical administration at the Arlington Free Clinic, conducts the lottery for health care.

The lottery is a game of chance, a random letter pulled out of a tupperware bin. But for the 140 people here at the Arlington Free Clinic, it's much more than that.

"The next letter will be the last letter," announces Jody Kelly, director of clinical administration.

Kelly conducts the lottery. When she pulls the letter "B," the sound of disappointment fills the air. Out of the 140 people who arrived at the clinic, only 25 people were selected. That left 115 people out on the street outside the clinic. One of those is Abraham Haile, a recent immigrant from Africa.

"Well, it's a lottery, and I'm not lucky in lottery. I don't get it. So that's all, eh?" Haile says.

One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, says she recently lost her job and she would like the clinic to see American citizens before undocumented immigrants -- a population that may become the dominant consumers of health care here when the Patient Care and Protection Act goes into effect in 2014. That's when an estimated 400,000 Virginians will be added to the Medicaid rolls.

Executive Director Nancy Pallensen says many of the people who regularly show up here will qualify for Medicaid and will, therefore, be ineligible for services at the free clinic. (Pallensen also serves on WAMU's Community Council.)

"It is so hard the way we do health care in this country. I think the patients get very frustrated. They want us to do what we can't do. We just can't take care of everyone," Pallensen says.

Delegate Patrick Hope says the General Assembly had better start investing more in health care or Virginia will find itself in a serious crisis.

"If people in this room do not get the care they need, where do you think they go? They're still sick. And so they end up in the emergency room costing taxpayers more down the road," Hope says.

If recent trends are any guide, even more people will show up next month and wait for their letter to be called.

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