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Medical Service For All

Arlington Free Clinic provides regular check-ups, specialty care and free medication to those without health insurance.

Sitting in an office at the Arlington Free Clinic in Ballston, Angelina Multeni rattles off the long litany of medications she has to take every day: There is insulin to help the 56-year-old help control her diabetes, two medications to mitigate her high blood pressure, more pills for her ailing kidneys and others to mollify the numbness in her left arm from injuries sustained in a car accident several years ago.

Angelina Multeni, who emigrated from the Philippines in 1969 and has lived in Arlington for more than three years, has no health insurance and her medications cost in excess of $1,000 a month. But at the clinic she receives free health care services and medication and the advice of volunteer doctors and nurses.

“I can’t afford to pay for my medication,” said Multeni, who works three times a week as a baby-sitter and whose husband drives a taxi cab in Arlington. “Without the clinic I don’t know what I would do. I might be dead already.”

Every week dozens of low-income, uninsured county residents like Multeni come to the Arlington Free Clinic for regular check-ups, specialty care, mental health counseling and to receive free medication from its licensed pharmacy. The clinic is a private, nonprofit organization and provided services to more than 1,400 residents in 2004. Five times a week the clinic holds a four-hour session, during which an average of 30 patients seek medical treatment and guidance. The pharmacy wrote 16,000 prescriptions last year.

“I love the spirit of the clinic because everyone here is working to help those who don’t have enough money to pay to help themselves,” said Caroline Hufford, who volunteers once or twice a month. “We do our very best to help people through the worst circumstances.”

To qualify for the free services, individuals must be county residents for six months, have proof of living in the United States for at least one year, have no medical insurance and meet income requirements, which work out to approximately $29,000 a year for a family of four, said Executive Director Nancy Pallesen.

“Every time I come here I feel like I’m the only patient they have,” said John Murray, who came to the clinic last year with agonizing stomach pains and was diagnosed with acid-reflux disease.

IN THE EARLY 1990s members of the Arlington Medical Society came together to find a solution to the growing number of Arlington residents who had no health insurance and could not afford to pay for their medication.

“We had a lot of immigrants coming into the county at that time and people were losing their jobs as the economy was going south,” Pallesen said.

A committee was formed to determine the feasibility of establishing a free clinic and in 1994 the first general medical sessions began at Thomas Jefferson Middle School. In 1998 the clinic moved to Columbia Pike. It is currently housed in the Ballston Medical Center during construction on a new Colombia Pike facility, due to open in 2008.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of Arlington residents possess no health insurance. More than 60 percent of the clinic’s patients are Hispanic and Pallesen estimates up to 90 percent speak English as a second language. Bilingual staff members are on hand at all times to help translate.

Virginia Hospital Center is the clinic’s largest supporter, and supplies lab, testing and x-ray services for patients — and many of the hospital’s doctors and nurses volunteer at the clinic.

Last year 700 patients used the clinic’s mental and behavioral health assistance and hundreds more took part in its wellness education programs. Many patients do not know the basic components of living a healthy lifestyle and the clinic strives to get them to take better care of their bodies, said Paula Potts, the clinic’s development officer for foundation and benefit support.

Multeni said the clinic staff has helped her begin a strict regiment of dieting and exercise, and calls her frequently to ensure she is staying on her program.

“They tell me how to eat, drink and exercise,” she said. “I’m following all of their advice.”

More than 500 individuals volunteered at the clinic last year, including 145 physicians. The volunteers are “the back bone of the clinic and what make it work,” Potts said.

“The volunteers do anything you ask of them and are so willing to learn,” said Kate Wilson, director of clinical administration. “They make the patients feel so welcomed and really care about what happens here.”

THE CLINIC RECEIVES the majority of its funding from grants, with 22 active grants from a variety of government sources, companies, other nonprofit organizations and faith-based groups. But it is a constant challenge to win grants, especially in a market as competitive as the Washington Metropolitan region — where there are a multitude of nonprofit health organizations.

“It’s a precarious existence,” Potts said. “We never sit back and say we are in great shape. We’re always looking for new sources of funding.”

The clinic raises almost one-third of its yearly budget during its annual fall benefit gala, which was held on Oct. 22 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Tysons Corner. More than 640 people attended the black-tie event, from which the clinic netted $350,000.

“It was our best year yet and we were very pleased with the turnout,” Pallesen said. “We were a little worried people wouldn’t support us because all of the resources going down to the Gulf Coast.”

The clinic is stepping up its outreach program and soliciting donations throughout the holiday season, but with so many other charities asking for money this time of year it can be difficult to raise a large sum.

“It’s a never-ending struggle,” Potts said. “The costs of providing medical care continue to escalate and we have to increase our efforts to keep up.”