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New clinic offers free health care option to uninsured

By Jenn Kloc/ For CU-CitizenAccess — Irfan Ahmad had a problem. He saw people in his community who couldn’t afford what he considered a basic human right — health care.

The engineer did what many would do to address a difficult problem: he reached out to members of his local religious community to find a solution together.

The idea for the Avicenna Community Health Center was born, but Ahmad and others at the Central Illinois Mosque and Islamic Center knew they couldn’t do it alone. They collaborated with local hospitals, clinics and community members to construct a strong foundation for their free clinic.

Unequal access to health care is not a unique problem to Champaign-Urbana. More than 50 million people in the United States don't have health insurance, according to 2009 U.S. Census estimates. About 1.7 million people in Illinois are uninsured, the bureau estimates, and more than 18,000 of them live in Champaign County.

Ahmad believes the number is actually higher. He estimates between 19,000 and 54,000 can't afford health care because of layoffs or inadequate coverage.

Champaign-Urbana has two free clinics: the Avicenna Community Health Center and the Champaign County Christian Health Center (CCCHC). In an interfaith spirit, the two clinics share a spot at 507 S. Second St. in Champaign.

Despite the two clinics being separated by faith, they still work together to tackle the community's health care issues.

“To me, that's a great story because first of all, the CCCHC is offering their space to be shared with Avicenna,” said Ben Mueller, a long-time community health activist who has worked with both clinics. “You know, the Christianity and the Muslim, the Islamic religion, they share in common a lot of values, and trying to combine spiritual recovery with medical help…I think that it's a great story, the collaboration that they have.”

The Avicenna Community Health Center opened in January 2010. Although the clinic is only open one day per week, Sunday, it still served 500 patients in its first year. The clinic hopes to double its reach and treat 1,000 patients in 2011.

“It is our belief that we know, realistically speaking, that we can not move mountains, but we can, each one of us — or each one of our groups — move stones,” said Ahmad. “If each one of us does that, then maybe we will be able to move a mountain.”

The first “stone” early advocates for the Avicenna clinic had to move was organizational in nature: they had to build a network of contributors.

“This was brought about with the motivation that there is some pool of resources and expertise available within the local Muslim Islamic community, and that we should leverage it for the better good,” said Ahmad. The idea for the clinic also reflected, “the manifestation of what the religion says, [which] is to take care of your neighbor,” he said.

Once the clinic’s founders had generated enough interest from within the Muslim community, they had to decide how to finance the clinic.

“We all said, ‘Let us put our money where our mouth is,’” said Ahmad.

Since May 2009, not only have the founding members, board of directors and volunteer physicians committed their time and expertise to the clinic, but they each take a voluntary personal payroll deduction to guarantee a revenue stream for the clinic, he said.

Local Muslims also support the Avicenna Community Health Center. Champaign-Urbana’s Muslim community is charitable, Ahmad said, particularly during Ramadan. “From an Islamic Muslim standpoint, giving donations is part of the religion,” he said.

Not all of Avicenna Community Health Center’s funding comes from its members or the Muslim community, however. Ahmad said the clinic raised $50,000 last October in a community-wide dinner. He said that they have also been “constantly writing for grants” and pursuing “non-conventional ways of raising funds for continuing momentum,” such as a 5K they are planning this spring.

For Syed Hashmi, the clinical operations coordinator and a fourth-year medical student at the University of Illinois, helping uninsured people gain access to free health care is an extension of his faith. “Doing good in Islam is a very big thing,” he said. “Believing and doing good are together. They are not separable.”

Despite the clinic’s Islamic motivations, its goal is to provide what it calls “culturally competent” health care to county’s residents, regardless of religious background.

“Our take is that you can come in from any religious affiliation that you are motivated from, or no religious affiliation,” Ahmad said. “But the bottom line is that those who need the care the most should get it, and so we should all join hands in providing that care.”

The Avicenna Community Health Center provides tangible relief to its patients. On Sunday, Feb. 13, Ezechiel Lungela sat in the softly lit waiting area while his friend met with a physician. The atmosphere was calm with voices speaking softly in Hindi, French, and English in varied accents.

Lungela was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo but moved to Champaign a year and two months ago, enrolling in classes at Parkland College. “I was going to Frances Nelson, and they told me about Avicenna,” he said. “I am a student … [Parkland] asked me to do a physical. So I came here because I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have insurance. And everything was good.”

For uninsured people such as Lungela, the clinic’s free medical services make a big difference. Hashmi recalled a patient who was sick but had no money when she saw a flyer for the clinic at a laundromat.

“She burst into tears,” Hashmi said, recounting the woman’s story. “There was a ray of hope for her.”

Such a profound impact on their patients’ lives helps the staff of the Avicenna clinic keep working against the disparity in access to quality health care in Champaign-Urbana.

“This is one of the major crises of our time, and we can do something about it,” said Ahmad. “If you save one person, you save humanity.”

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.