Wei Kuo (second to left), the founder of Free Clinic Project at UCI, huddles up with volunteer students to discuss the clinic’s logistics before and after every clinic. (Photo by Jennifer Cain)

While the Affordable Care Act has changed the healthcare reality for tens of thousands of previously uninsured Orange County residents over the past year, options for the county’s estimated 300,000 undocumented residents remain extremely limited.

That is why, experts say, efforts like the Free Clinic Project at the University of California, Irvine are a crucial resource for this vulnerable population.

Located in Garden Grove, the clinic, which opened in December, is run by volunteer medical and undergraduate students under the supervision of two physicians. They treat people with issues ranging from the common cold to diabetes and kidney failure.

Founded by Wei Kuo, a fourth-year biology major at UCI, the Free Clinic Project is a partner of Lestonnac Free Health Clinic which operates other free clinics in Orange and Los Alamitos.

“We really want to be there because some things really can’t wait. You should go see a doctor and that’s what we’re here for,” Kuo said.

And just as importantly, the clinic is a training base “for the next generation of doctors,” said the project’s Medical Director Dr. Baotran Vo, a family medicine and primary care doctor with UC Irvine Health.

By treating uninsured patients only, Dr. Vo said she hopes the clinic will inspire students to become heath care providers who are “community conscious and really want to give back.”

Volunteers at the clinic learn about the logistics of running a health center, setting up appointments, and approaching and treating patients. Currently, the clinic staff sees between three and six people a day, but hopes to significantly increase its patient load in the coming months.

There are many who need the services. While Covered California, the state’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), may have helped increase Medi-Cal enrollment statewide by a total of 2.2 million applicants in 2014, the ACA excludes undocumented residents, who now make up a greater portion of the uninsured population.

“Usually people have the option to go to another clinic to get another opinion, but our choices are very limited,” said an undocumented woman living in Costa Mesa who did not want to be named for fear of deportation.

The woman uses the plight of her father to illustrate the daily struggle of many undocumented people who suffer from health issues that would be treatable if they had affordable access to healthcare.

Already suffering from untreated diabetes, the man broke his arm after falling off a ladder at a side job in the spring of 2013. He went to Share Our Selves (SOS), a community health center in Costa Mesa, and was referred to a hospital, but decided not to go.

“He knew the hospital bills would be super expensive,” the woman said. Her father continued to work with the broken arm, and self-treated the injury with arm exercises and massage therapy.

Stories such as this reveal the limitations of the free clinics, Vo said.

While the free clinics are able to provide primary care, “the referral system is very limited,” Vo said, and there is a need for more doctors who are willing to perform pro bono specialty procedures.

“We see people with tumors that are 6 centimeters in size who have not been seen before,” Dr. Vo said. “We’ve seen people who travel 2 hours to get here when they hear there’s a clinic available. Those are the people we are trying to reach out to.”

In some cases, undocumented California residents may qualify for Medicaid under Prucol Status, said Dr. Michael Gusmano, who co-directed the “Undocumented Patients Project” at the Hastings Center in New York. Prucol status refers to residents who are not legal citizens, but are eligible for public benefits. But there are some restrictions.

“If you are Prucol in California you may be eligible for Medi-Cal, but you can’t use federal dollars to cover your care,” Gusmano said.

This is a hurdle for those seeking care at the clinics. Even though doctor visits are free, patients are responsible for the cost of lab work and medication. However, lab costs can be discounted up to 90 percent.

“What we are hoping to do here is catch those patients early to give them the service we can with our limited resources,” Dr. Vo said. “Hopefully we can catch that diabetic early on, hopefully we can pick up that tumor earlier. We are hoping to do as much as we can, but we see our limitations.”

 To make an appointment at the UCI Free Clinic Project call (714) 633-4600

Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the relationship between the UCI Free Clinic Project and the Lestonnac Free Health Clinic. It also inaccurately stated that Lestonnac operates a clinic in Anaheim. We regret the errors.

Jenny Cain is a Costa Mesa-based freelance journalist. You can reach her at jnncain@gmail.com.

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