MARQUETTE -When describing her medical insurance situation, Carol O'Neill says she "fell through the cracks."
Her husband, who had been disabled for years, became wheelchair-bound about a decade ago and she began staying home to care for him.
O'Neill, a 60-year-old Harvey resident, and her husband live month-to-month on Social Security checks. Though he qualifies for Medicare and Medicaid, she doesn't, and it has been years since she has been close to being able to afford private insurance.
Maureen LaWent of Ishpeming visits physican’s assistant Larry Buege for a check-up at the Medical Care Access Coalition in Marquette. The coalition is a non-profit entity that coordinates volunteered and donated medical care to low income and/or uninsuired persons in Marquette County. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
"We barely make ends meet as it is," she said recently. "There is no extra."
So when, in 2001, O'Neill heard about a local program that offered low-income residents unable to afford insurance access to medical care, she jumped at the opportunity and became one of the first patients involved with Marquette County's Medical Care Access Coalition.
Over the years, O'Neill has received basic medical care and chiropractic work and has gained access to reduced cost optical care and pharmaceuticals. MCAC, a non-profit organization, is able to provide such benefits through the donation of medical services.
Largely through the utilization of those donated services, MCAC, which first opened its doors in the fall of 2001, coordinates medical care for low-income, uninsured residents - aged 19 to 64 - in Marquette, Alger and Schoolcraft counties.
For the purposes of MCAC, a low-income resident is defined as someone who makes less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. For an individual, that number is $21,780. For a family of four, it is $44,700.
In order to qualify for MCAC - one of five medical access coalitions in the Upper Peninsula - a person must have applied for and been denied Medicaid or Michigan's Adult Benefits Waiver program. Across the three counties, an estimated 900 residents utilize MCAC services.
Administrators at MCAC estimate that about 11 percent of Marquette County residents are uninsured. MCAC Executive Director Melissa Hall said medical care can be so expensive, and the process to receive care so confusing, that many people avoid doctors altogether.
People are more likely receive regular medical check-ups, she said, if they are familiar with, and comfortable in, a doctor's office.
"Some people haven't been to the doctor in years," she said. "I had a gentleman come in recently and say he hadn't been to the doctor since the 1980s. Can you even imagine?"
By the time they walk through the MCAC door, she said, many have accumulated large amounts of medical debt.
O'Neill was one of those people. She said she and her husband had massive doctor bills that, regardless of how much she paid, seemed to never go away. Since she has been receiving care through MCAC, she has been able to whittle the bills down.
"Below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, you get people from all walks of life," MCAC Program Director Mac Miller said, adding that service providers often don't know that patients are affiliated with MCAC. "And we pride ourselves on providing services with dignity."
O'Neill appreciates that.
"I've never once felt less of a person because I'm on it," she said of MCAC. "I'm very grateful they have this program."
In fact, for the last decade, O'Neill has received an MCAC survey, on which she is asked to rate the services she has received.
"I just cannot help but mark excellent on every one of them," she said. "It's very much a blessing. That's all I can say."
Donation information, as well as the MCAC newsletter, can be found online at www.upmcac.org.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.