John Pelletier was “wicked sick.” He thought he had the flu. He and his wife, Sandy, were homeless. Asking for help was not their way.
A big blue bus rigged out as a medical office was parked alongside the boardwalk at Hampton Beach that winter day, offering free care to homeless people.
Pelletier paced outside.
A young woman stuck her head out, smiled, and said, “Are you coming in or not?”
He climbed aboard.
Pelletier had high blood pressure, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And no health insurance.
“If that had gone unchecked,” Pelletier said, “I would not be here today.”
John eventually convinced Sandy to come to the bus. She was directed to free cancer screenings that Families First offers to low-income women; she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She got treatment and is now cancer-free. The Pelletiers credit Families First Health and Support Center with saving their lives.
Families First is a community health center offering integrated primary health care — health and dental, mental health, and parent and family support programs, in addition to the “Big Blue” mobile health clinic.
The organization serves more than 6,300 men, women and children each year.
“We really are a medical home,” said Families First Executive Director Helen Taft.
Twenty-eight percent of Families First’s patients last year were uninsured, and an additional 44 percent on Medicaid. About 28 percent of all the patients are homeless.
“Helen Taft moves heaven and earth to keep serving an ever-growing number of patients with an ever-growing list of challenges,” said New Hampshire Charitable Foundation Vice President Katie Merrow.
“Helen Taft moves heaven and earth to keep serving an ever-growing number of patients with an ever-growing list of challenges.”– Katie Merrow, New Hampshire Charitable FoundationTweet This
In 2013, Foundation annual meeting attendees awarded Families First with $7,500 to help replace the mobile health clinic — the first-place prize in a nonprofit “pitch competition.” Since January of 2013, Families First has also received $111,500 in grants from the Foundation and $441,000 from Foundation donor-advised fund holders.
Fees at Families First are charged on a sliding scale — no one is denied care because they can’t pay.
“Financial sustainability is always the challenge,” Taft said. It’s not just “business as usual” for community health centers, with implementation of the Affordable Care Act and fluctuations in public funding.
“Things are changing and we want to be part of that because we want to be sustainable and continue working with our families,” Taft said.
It was a gamble with health care that led the Pelletiers to become homeless. John was making nearly $80,000 a year driving a truck. Sandy has been a fulltime teacher’s aide for 15 years. When the amount they had to pay for health insurance increased fivefold, they decided to drop the insurance. They both had been healthy.
Then John got cancer.
They depleted their savings to pay for John’s cancer treatment and lost their home. John was cancer-free, but they were homeless.
Families First helped the Pelletiers with the paperwork for John’s veteran’s benefits, Medicaid and Social Security. The Pelletiers still go to Families First for everything from nutrition services for John’s diabetes to Sandy’s dental care.
And they have been able to buy a home again.
“And,” said John, “it was all because we started at Families First.”
TO LEARN MORE, VISIT WWW.FAMILIESFIRSTSEACOAST.ORG
This article originally appeared in the Foundation’s Spring/Summer 2014 Purpose Newsletter.