Affordable Healthcare in Olympia
Finding Healthcare Proves Challenging
By Felix Chrome
For people with low income and no insurance, affordable medical care can be hard to find. Even for people with Medicaid, seeing a primary care physician isn’t necessarily possible. Olympia is a small town, and it can feel like there are not many options. Finding healthcare can be rough, but it is important to know your choices.
For emergencies, you should always call 911 or go to an emergency room. But when symptoms are not life threatening, you can seek out medical care from one of Olympia’s clinics.
The Olympia Free Clinic is the only free clinic in Olympia. They will treat any adult resident of Thurston County who is uninsured and makes 200 percent of the federal poverty level or less, on a walk-in basis.
The project began after the closure of a free clinic in Lacey in 2009 by employees who did not wish to see that service disappear. The Olympia clinic was opened May 25, 2011.
The clinic is open Wednesday and Thursday nights from 5:30-8 p.m., and some Monday evenings for specialized services such as massage, chiropractic, or the ‘women’s health clinic’ (their calender is online at oly-wa.us/OlyFreeClinic).
This is a much needed service for the community, but as of right now it’s hours and services are still very limited.
Director of service, Paula Rauen, told me, “The need for our services is great and we are expanding. Most recently we added the Mental Health Access Program and plan to offer a wound care clinic in the near future.” However, at this time, the free clinic does not plan to expand their hours.
Most people without access to money or insurance turn to urgent care clinics. In Olympia, our only option is Westcare. Westcare will take walk-ins—even if you don’t have insurance—but it won’t be cheap.
Without insurance, basic visits, which cover more minor medical problems in which the patient already knows what is wrong (such as the flu, ear infections, pink eye, etc), begin at $99 for new patients and $79 for returning ones. More comprehensive visits start at $125, and that does not include the cost of any medicine you might be prescribed, or diagnostic tests and laboratory work.
Westcare has fairly accessible hours, open into the evening and on the weekends, and takes most major insurances including Medicaid. This may be a decent option if you have insurance or can afford their prices. But many people have expressed having negative experiences, in fact almost every student I spoke to had what I think it is not too hyperbolic to describe as horror stories.
Olympia resident and Evergreen student Anna Gordon told me, “I had absolutely terrible experiences there. I waited in excruciating pain for two and a half hours, then saw a doctor for less than one minute and it cost me $100.”
Kendra Freas said, “I think the Westcare Clinic’s services are too in demand to give actual health care. I’ve never gotten a correct diagnosis there. Visits are too short.” Freas then went on to describe being misdiagnosed with staph, after what she described as an inadequate examination by a Westcare physician. Westcare is the only urgent care clinic open to the general public in Olympia.
If you are a student, you can seek health services at The Evergreen State College Student Health Center. Ideally, the on-campus health center would fill this void in service for students, but it does not necessarily cover the needs of everyone. According to Evergreen’s office of Institutional Research and Assessment, 51 percent of students are low income and 45 percent are below the federal poverty line. For these students, cost can be a barrier to treatment on and off campus.
In order to access the Health Center, students are required to pay an $83-per-quarter fee. While this is bundled in with tuition and is not optional for full-time students, part-time students have to opt-in and pay this fee in order to access the Health Center, and the fee is not always within a student’s means.
But even paying this fee does not ensure free medical treatment for students from the center. While there is no fee just for seeing a doctor, or administrative fees associated with appointments, students still have to pay for any tests, medical procedures, or prescriptions they receive during their visit.
Though this is not affordable for everyone, the Health Center is cheaper than most urgent care clinics. Lola Kowalkowski, patient services lead at the Health Center, assured me that they always “try to keep costs as low as possible.”
You can also get some helpful stuff for free there like ibuprofen, aspirin, condoms, tampons, pads, disposable thermometers, throat lozenges, salt for lavages and gargle, and masks. But if you need anything serious, you will probably run into fees.
The Student Health Center also does not bill insurance agencies, meaning that even if you have insurance, you will still have to pay for services and then submit your bill to an insurance company for reimbursement.
According to Kowalkowski, the Health Center bills all charges “directly to the student account. No payment is due at the time of service and there are no upfront costs. This can be helpful for those who are trying to access care now, but may not have access to cash now.”
The Olympia Free Clinic, Westcare, and Student Health Center are the options for general traditional urgent and non-emergency care. For anything having to do with reproductive or sexual health issues, there is Planned Parenthood. They offer services on a sliding scale with proof of income and residency. For low-income folks, this means that many services could be free.
Planned Parenthood takes most insurance, and are no co-pays if you have Medicaid, even for medications. They even have counselors that can help you apply for Medicaid in some cases. Sadly, there is a very limited scope of ailments they deal with.
Another free option is the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic, open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 5-7 p.m. They offer free services to anyone who comes in, without any proof of income or residency.
These services can be helpful in many circumstances, and can treat illnesses and other urgent matters, but they clarify that herbal medicine “is especially suited to chronic conditions and supporting body systems rather than simply alleviating symptoms.”
On their website they also give the disclaimer that “We are not licensed to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. While we are stocked with basic first aid and do have some training, we are not an emergency room.”