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November 21, 2014

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Doctor driven to start clinic for the uninsured

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Florence Jameson, an obstetrician-gynecologist, talks with Nana Kufuor, a pediatrician, inside Jameson’s Las Vegas office on Friday, May 19, 2008.

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Jameson talks to patient Brandi Johnson, 19, during a visit to Jameson's office on Friday. Jameson says when she was a child being raised by a single mother, a family doctor would "graciously take care of us for nothing."

Dr. Florence Jameson is trying to figure out how to provide free health care to some of the more than 300,000 uninsured residents of Clark County.

She would need a clinic to house the operation. She’s working on it.

She’d need dozens of doctors, nurses and pharmacists to work for free. She’s working on that.

She’d need cheap medicines. She’s working on that, too.

Mostly, she needs an inspiring dream. That, she’s got.

Jameson, an obstetrician-gynecologist who has worked in Las Vegas for more than 20 years, has launched an effort to create Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada.

And on this morning, she and board members from the organization have gathered nearly 100 other professionals around platters of pastries and fresh fruit at the opulent Las Vegas Country Club to discuss how they could help this town by doing something for free.

The effort couldn’t come at a better time: The number of uninsured has never been higher. And the altruism of such an effort would be a decent antidote to a spate of bad medical news, including one of the largest hepatitis C outbreaks in the country, caused by shoddy medical practices at a downtown clinic.

At the proposed free clinic, doctors and nurses, many of them retired, would work for nothing and all fees would be waived.

A video presentation by the national nonprofit organization Volunteers in Medicine talked about welcoming patients as a “friend and a neighbor” — greeting them at the clinic door with a sympathetic ear and thanking them for coming. The organization is not religious, but bases its philosophy on the biblical passages “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jameson’s pitch included her personal motivation for starting the clinic. Her voice broke with emotion as she told the group about being one of five children raised by a single mother in San Diego. There was enough money for an apartment and food, but not for health care, she said. But when the kids got really sick, their mother would take them to a family doctor who would “graciously take care of us for nothing,” Jameson said.

When she was young, Jameson said, she made a promise to God and herself: “One day I will give back.”

Now, after moving to Las Vegas, where she is a past president of the Clark County Medical Society, she said, “I stand here before you ready to fulfill my pledge to God.”

After the presentation came the questions.

What about liability?

Jameson explained that the clinic — because it would pay no remuneration to staff and charge no fees — can qualify for a federal designation that would protect doctors and nurses from malpractice claims.

Who will pay for the diagnostic tests, such as X-rays and blood work?

Rod Davis, president of St. Rose Dominican hospitals, committed his facilities to provide free diagnostics, Jameson said. She said officials of Hospital Corporation of America — which owns the four local Sunrise Health hospitals — have also said they want to be involved. And as for medicines, clinic organizers are now on the hunt for free or reduced-price drugs.

Jameson said about 20 doctors have committed to work at the clinic — and that’s just through word of mouth.

Eventually, she estimates, the clinic will need as many as 70 physicians, 30 nurses and a few pharmacists. The clinic hopes to tap into the pool of retired doctors for most of its staffing needs, she said.

In the audience sat one of Nevada’s most influential doctors, who also may soon have time on his hands. Dr. Tony Marlon, founder of Sierra Health Services, the state’s largest health insurance company, will serve for one year as a consultant to UnitedHealth Group, which took over Sierra this year.

Marlon said he was invited to the meeting and encouraged by his wife to attend. “You have a lot of training,” she told him.

Marlon, who until recently knew nothing about the plans for a free clinic, said he was surprised by the level of commitment by others.

Marlon, who made about $200 million from the United merger, said he has created a family foundation dedicated to health and education. It’s too early to commit resources to Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada, he said.

Along with everything else, Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada needs money.

The group will make a bid to purchase a vacant county building in Paradise Park for its first location and hopes it will be ready for occupancy by the end of the year, Jameson said.

The estimated $1 million annual budget has already received a boost. Assemblyman Dr. Garn Mabey helped land about $200,000 for the organization in a 2007 appropriations bill.

Mabey said doctors are enthusiastic about supporting the free clinic, in part because they are too saddled with overhead in their own offices to provide free care.

“I think most doctors really do care,” Mabey said. “There just has not been a facility that allows them to provide the care they would like to give for free.”

Dr. Leonard Kreisler, a retired physician who was once chief of staff at University Medical Center, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the clinic. The board faces many challenges: the building, the funding and credentials for the volunteers.

“It’s a promising thing,” Kreisler said, “but there are a lot of hurdles to overcome.”

More information about Volunteers in Medicine of Southern Nevada is available at 994-3760 or at www.vmsn.org.

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