John Pelletier was “Wicked Sick.”

Photo by Cheryl Senter, courtesy of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation

Photo by Cheryl Senter, courtesy of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation

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 one 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 COPD. 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 too. She was directed to free cancer screenings that Families First offers to low-income women — and diagnosed with breast cancer. She got treatment and is 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 6,000 men, women and children annually. “We really are a medical home,” said Families First Executive Director Helen Taft.

Fifty-five percent of Family First’s patients last year were uninsured, and an additional 30 percent on Medicaid. About 30 percent of all their 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 Foundation vice-president Katie Merrow.

In 2013, the Charitable Foundation provided Families First with $7,500 to help replace the mobile health clinic, a $60,000 three-year operating grant and almost $170,000 from donor-advised funds. Fees at Families First are charged on a sliding scale — no one is denied care because they can’t pay. Last year, Families First provided $1.4 million in uncompensated care.

“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 $80k a year driving a truck. Sandy has been a full-time teacher’s aide for 15 years. When the amount they had to pay for health insurance increased nearly tenfold, 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. He 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 little home again.

“And,” said John, “it was all because we started at Families First.”

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