Four-year-old Troy McGowen is a typical child with a typical medical problem -- he gets ear infections.
But unlike many children, Troy couldn't see his pediatrician in Rock Hill when his ears hurt.
For a while, his mother, Angie Outen, didn't have insurance. Then when she got Medicaid, she didn't have transportation to get to a doctor's office.
Luckily, she found help close to home.
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The Early Learning Partnership health clinic, which provides free health care for uninsured patients under 18, was close enough for her to get to, and a pediatrician was able to see Troy right away.
The program operates out of family resource centers in York, Clover, Fort Mill and Rock Hill and helps people whose children are sick, but have nowhere to go.
"It's a real good thing to have," Outen said.
Nationally, 11.7 percent of people younger than 18 don't have insurance, according to 2006 Census data. In South Carolina, recent reports show 10.7 percent of residents younger than 18 are uninsured -- the highest it's been since 1999.
These are the children of people who earn too much for Medicaid but not enough to afford private insurance. As York County's population grows, organizers of the partnership have seen an increase in demand for service in York and Clover. In 2006, the two resource centers saw a combined 295 patients. By November of this year, the number had jumped to 364. More than 1,000 patients will be treated countywide this year.
Three doctors, George Bonham, Martha Edwards and Susan Start, volunteer at the free clinics, funded by grants. They also offer access to prescriptions through a CVS charity fund.
The partnership grew out of a United Way program, "Success by 6," which brought the community together to come up with ideas to help children. As the program added medical clinics and programs to help parents learn to care for their children, organizers separated from the United Way.
Since it started in 2002, the program has grown tremendously, said Penny Sanders, director of the York Resource Center.
"We had check-ups and immunizations. Now they're able to do walk-ins," Sanders said. "It's a wonderful fit."
Access to proper health care is vital to a child's education, organizers said.
"It really affects how a child is able to learn," said Martha Edwards, a pediatrician. "If a child is not able to get a tooth filled or has a horrible ear infection or is wheezing so much that they can't sleep at night, they can't do well in school."
A lot of people ignore the child's health care problem because it doesn't seem urgent, while some are forced to use the emergency room as their medical home, Edwards said. Not only does this create a financial burden for the family, but they're not apt to see a doctor who knows the child's background.
Problems that may seem small -- a stomach ache or flu symptoms, may indicate something more serious, Edwards said. It's medical problems that an emergency room doctor may not catch.
Recently, a school nurse referred a student who had been throwing up. When Edwards checked growth charts, she realized the child was obese, but short for his age. Tests revealed he had no thyroid hormone, which caused his growth to be stunted and could have caused mental retardation. Edwards doubts an emergency room doctor would have thought to check growth charts.
Dental care is yet another area that families without insurance tend to put on the back burner.
Teresa Creech, the partnership's resource center liaison, said studies have shown this is the No. 1 reason that children miss school.
The clinics now refer people to local dentists willing to see the children for free. Dr. Nelson Eddy of Rock Hill, who volunteers with the program, said the consequences can be dire if a child is not seen.
"It's going to affect their overall heath," he said.
Those who think only lazy people don't have insurance are uninformed, Creech said. A person can be working several jobs, but perhaps none of them offer insurance, she said. Others are just down on their luck.
Like other small towns, Clover doesn't have a pediatrician, said Nina Feemster, director of the Clover resource center. The center offers transportation to their office for families who otherwise wouldn't see a doctor, she said.
"That may seem really easy for people who can hop in their car and drive wherever they need to, but there are a lot of families who can't get services simply because they can't get to where the services are," Feemster said.
Happy for some help
Becky Bradley has been working as a nurse for the York school district for more than 30 years. As the district grows, she said she's glad the clinics are there to help.
"It's been a wonderful resource and it's very appreciated," Bradley said.
The volunteer doctors know they may be the children's only hope.
"If they don't have access to free care they might not get any care," said retired doctor, George Bonham. "I do it because I enjoy seeing the children and I have time to do it."