People young and old crowd the hallway outside the locked door of the Arlington Free Clinic. They grip small pieces of paper that will determine whether they get in -- or give up and go home.
It's lottery day, and 45 county residents who lack health insurance and money to pay for medical care are competing for 30 openings on a cold afternoon in January.
Mary Gleason, a clinic volunteer, draws letters from a plastic box. Those holding matching letters will be ushered through the door for interviews. If they meet the clinic's criteria, they'll return in a couple of weeks to see doctors or other staff.
One by one, winners are separated from losers. Gleason plucks a Z, and a man holding a Z strides into the clinic. His broken arm had been set in a hospital emergency room, and he needs to see a specialist for follow-up care.
Another man, who has Parkinson's disease and urgently needs drugs to treat it, leaves disheartened. He will have to return in two weeks and try again in the next lottery.
The lottery is just one example of the fate of the newly uninsured -- the growing numbers who once had jobs and insurance and now seek treatment with neither. Although most of the clinic's clients have low incomes, the nonprofit, privately funded operation and others like it in the region are seeing more people who used to be solidly middle-class. Victims of the deepening recession, they're now wondering where to turn for help.
Add to that this story about a free dental clinic where hundreds waited in line, and many had to be turned away.
In a sense, many of us are playing this same lottery. Our health depends on our ability to keep well-paying jobs with insurance that might or might not evaporate in the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades. One day you might be covered under your employer's high quality plan, and the next you might be riding it out on the Medicaid you get with unemployment (for a limited time.) Krugman is worried because Obama hasn't made the big push for health care reform yet. I can understand why, but he's right; there's no addressing this crisis without addressing the fact that 48 million and rising face the devastation of illness and injury on their own.