When Dr. Katherine O’Rourke started her residency at UW Hospital, one of her first patients was an uninsured woman in her early 50s. The woman, who had advanced cervical cancer, died within weeks.
“Cervical cancer is almost 100 percent preventable,” O’Rourke said. “If she had access to care, she would not have been in that position.”
O’Rourke asked a mentor, Dr. Mary Landry, where uninsured women in the Madison area go for gynecological care.
“I was embarrassed to say there really is no place,” said Landry, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Meriter Hospital and UW-Madison’s University Health Services.
So Landry and O’Rourke created Share the Health, a free gynecology clinic that opened last week on Madison’s West Side.
The clinic is open the third Thursday evening of each month, by referral and appointment, for patients in Dane County and bordering counties. It’s located inside Madison Women’s Health, a practice of six other doctors on Research Park Boulevard.
Services include colposcopies, or exams following abnormal Pap smears, along with biopsies, ultrasounds and treatments for abnormal bleeding, pelvic pain, menopausal symptoms and precancerous tissues.
The BSP Free Clinic in Middleton offers minor procedures, such as Pap smears and IUD removals. But it doesn’t do advanced procedures, such as ultrasounds and biopsies, said Ben Kroeplin, a spokesman for Dean Foundation, which supports the BSP clinic.
Share the Health isn’t offering routine screenings, such as Pap smears, mammograms and tests for sexually transmitted diseases. Those services are available for uninsured women elsewhere, such as at Planned Parenthood and through the state’s Wisconsin Well Woman Program, Landry said.
Patients at Share the Health who are found to need additional care, such as treatments for cancer, will be referred to hospital assistance programs, Landry said.
O’Rourke volunteered at a free gynecology clinic in Chicago while attending medical school. When she started her residency in Madison two years ago, she saw patients with a similar need, including the woman who died from cervical cancer.
Another patient O’Rourke treated died from endometrial cancer last fall after going years without seeing a doctor because she was uninsured, O’Rourke said.
The Affordable Care Act and Wisconsin’s expansion of BadgerCare for childless adults with incomes below the poverty level are making insurance available to many people who didn’t have it before.
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But Landry and O’Rourke said they expect a continuing need for the free clinic. That’s partly because other people are losing BadgerCare and might not be able to afford insurance through the Affordable Care Act’s exchanges, or online marketplaces for government-subsidized private insurance.
“Should the uninsured population go away in the next four to five years, we will happily close our doors,” Landry said. “But no one has given us that hope.”
Kasandra Schenck, 20, was one of the first patients at Share the Health.
A waitress, Schenck has been uninsured for more than two years. She hopes to start BadgerCare in April.
She recently went to a doctor because she had cramps and her period was several months late. She learned she needed tests costing $3,000 to $5,000.
“Who can afford that?” she said.
At the free clinic, she received an ultrasound and learned she has a hormone imbalance — but not cancer, as she feared.
“It was really a relief,” she said. “This place is really a blessing.”
Hawley Wright-Kusch, 64, uninsured for 10 years, put off seeking medical attention for bleeding, fibroids and pelvic pain, symptoms that started in September. She figured she’d go to the doctor in January, when her BadgerCare was expected to begin.
Then she learned that coverage would be delayed until April 1. Increasingly worried about her symptoms, she saw a doctor in early January anyway, paying $150 out of pocket for the visit.
The doctor said she needed an ultrasound costing more than $800. A retired illustrator, Wright-Kusch said she didn’t know how she would afford it. At the free clinic, she got the ultrasound, along with a biopsy, at no charge.
She doesn’t have a diagnosis yet but is happy her symptoms have been evaluated.
“This is the most incredible place,” she said. “They are doing something that I hope is repeated elsewhere.”