I Was Sick, You Cared for Me

April 25, 2002
I Was Sick, You Cared for Me
By Karen Kukla/ SUN contributing writer
UTICA — The 52-year-old woman had worked at the same factory for 16 years. She was recently laid off and although she suffered from an emphysema-like condition that made breathing difficult, she was unable to afford the $900-monthly prescription. Medicaid couldn’t help because she owned a home. Basically, she fell through the cracks.

Cindy Wiestling heard this story, and many like it, close to 950 times last year. It’s the story of the working poor: people who are striving to get by but due to circumstances beyond their control are unable to afford their physician-prescribed medication. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells how the rewards in the kingdom of heaven are given to those who serve on earth, providing food to the hungry, hospitality to the stranger and care for the sick.

Wiestling is the associate coordinator and a patient advocate at Health-Friends, a community partnership between St. Francis de Sales Parish in Utica, Catholic Charities of Herkimer County and the Mohawk Valley Network. The organization, founded three years ago, provides prescription medication to the working poor in the Utica community, people who don’t qualify for Medicaid, lack prescription coverage and meet specific income guidelines. Last year, the program provided 1,304 people with physician samples and medicine valued at $72,000.

HealthFriends provides short-term assistance to help people through the difficult times, Wiestling said. Prescriptions are obtained through no-cost pharmaceutical company programs called Patient Assistance Programs. The application process can take several months so medication needs are met on a short-term basis through samples obtained from the client’s physician or authorization vouchers to local pharmacies. Wiestling said that the average authorization costs $41. “Since 9-11 a lot of people have lost their jobs,” Wiestling said. “These are people who have worked all of their lives and don’t normally ask for help. I hear the stories and realize that, but for the grace of God, it could happen to anyone of us.”

Since the program began, HealthFriends has purchased more than $100,000 worth of medication and obtained $700,000 worth of free medication for people who live in Oneida and Herkimer Counties. One man had worked all of his life and recently lost his job and, consequently, his health insurance. His medical conditions required two expensive medications. A patient advocate worked with the man’s physician to obtain samples and then applied to various pharmaceutical companies to obtain free prescription medication. Another woman was referred to HealthFriends from a nearby shelter. She had left an abusive relationship with only the clothes on her back. A HealthFriends advocate was able to connect her with a local optometrist where she received an examination and free pair of eyeglasses to replace the pair she was forced to leave behind.

In many cases, the level of service does not stop with prescriptions, Wiestling explained. In the example above, HealthFriends also provided the woman with telephone access so she could make housing arrangements. One of the main objectives, she said, is to treat each client with basic dignity and respect. “It’s hard for many people to ask for help,” she explained. “Many people come here pretty beat up from the system.” HealthFriends also provides Child Health Plus and Family Health Plus enrollments and offers free dental care to children ages 3-19 who lack insurance. Because the ministry is located in Utica’s Hospitality Row, patient advocates may also direct clients to the food pantry, Hope House and other ministries.

One man came to the ministry directly after being released from the hospital. Some of his toes had been amputated. His bandages were slipping off. He was in pain, needed antibiotics, blood pressure medication, insulin for diabetes and six other medications. He was confused and needed help. A caseworker had tried to get him an immediate appointment to apply for Medicaid, but there was a two-week wait. Health-Friends provided him immediate authorization and contacted the hospital, which sent someone to rebandage the foot and take him home where medication was delivered by the pharmacy. Like many ministries, HealthFriends faces the on-going challenge of establishing a reliable cash flow to insure its ability to meet the needs of people seeking its services. The organization relies on donations and grants from people of all denominations.

On Sunday, April 28, HealthFriends will hold a Celebrate Spring benefit concert from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. at St. John the Evangelist Church in New Hartford. The event will be directed by Scott Rutledge, head of the music ministry at St. Joseph’s Church in Lee Center. Musical arrangements for the fund raiser were designed to appeal to a vast audience — from modern Christian rock to traditional brass selections, patriotic music to gospel, Rutledge said. Performers will include the adult choir from St. Joseph Church in Lee Center, the combined children’s choirs of St. Joseph’s and St. Peter’s in Rome, St. Peter School’s symphonic band, a brass quintet and a gospel choir. Tickets can be purchased at the door for $1 and a free will offering will be taken to support the ministry.

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