Calling Doctor Cheap-o! 

An Unpaid Apptentice's Guinea Pig Guide to Inexpensive Portland Health Care

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Like everyone else, I'm new in town. And young, and borderline unemployed. I rolled into Portland a month ago from Iowa, drawn by vegan sugarplum visions of a land where cute boys with choppy haircuts skipped alongside lanes of plentiful bicycles. The fact that these visions turned out to be 100 percent true is what keeps me—and many, many others—here despite the big downside of living in a wonderful dream town: It is fucking impossible to find a well-paying job. Five years of barista experience couldn't snag me a simple graveyard-shift busser gig from the desperate maws of a dozen other applicants who went through two rounds of interviews. So while Portland may have one of the nation's highest densities of college grads and a progressive approach to health care, a vast 40 percent of Portlanders between ages 21 and 24 still don't have insurance.

To understand what a bike messenger should do when he breaks a rib, or where a part-time server can turn when she skips a period, I decided to embark on a bold plan: find a way to get all my health care taken care of. For under $100. Total. Without insurance.

DOCTOR'S CHECKUP

First stop, of course, was the homeless shelter. Receiving homeless health care wasn't the most comfortable idea, to put it nicely—since I own a laptop and have never eaten gruel. But in late June, the tires of my bike slid perfectly into the grooves of the MAX tracks and I ended up eating some Pearl District pavement. A bearded bike jock twisted my handlebars back into working order, but two weeks later my knee was still in a bad way. I've always had a thing for anatomy and gross bugs and such, but this knee was downright disgusting. It was oozing. Oozing pus. My knee. Health clinics around town all took a look at my age (21) and income (uh, poor) and pointed me to the same place: the walk-in clinic at homeless youth center Outside In.

Soon, I'm standing in the center's modern glass and steel lobby, 15th in line to sign up for a doctor. A female skate punk and two middle-age blue-collar guys join the line behind me. The clinic is always busy. The basically free doctors at Outside In see 6,000 people a year—most of them uninsured types under the age of 65 like myself.

Forty minutes pass after I fill out the paperwork and all of a sudden my name is called. Victory! I'm the first patient seen and that means I'm the sickest, youngest person in the room. Two perky medical students lead me into a small room and I'm surprised to find that the shelter's clinic looks exactly the same as a loafers-lined-with-dollars doctor's office. The all-smiles medical students ask me a mountain of questions, poke my knee, listen to my breathing, and exit to confer with the certified doctor on staff. She's all smiles, too, and tells me, yes, my knee is rather infected. The three write out a list of low-cost options. Since antibiotics are pricey, they recommend removing the infection by slicing up a potato, placing the potato on my knee and then throwing the newly pus-filled potato away. They recommend I potato my knee daily. I furrow my forehead and shrug, thinking I got exactly what I paid for. But then I go home and try it... and that damn tuber sucks good!

Price Tag: $10, if you can pay it. But no one is turned away.
Paperwork: No ID needed. Walk-in clinics held Monday-Friday, check outsidein.org/clinic.htm for times.
Place: Outside In, 1132 SW 13th, 535-3890

PENISES/VAGINAS

I ignore the fetus-waving protesters on the corner of NE 15th and Fremont. Planned Parenthood is unarguably wonderful if you're a girl like me who just wants someone to look at her vagina for free. For three years, I had successfully avoided letting doctors guilt me into scheduling a pap smear with their hysterical warnings of "cancer" and "hygiene." But I finished college a month ago, so that makes me officially an "Adult." I now drink wine. I now wear a bike helmet. I now cheerfully allow a Q-tip to sample my cervix. I used my best responsible feminist voice to schedule my appointment over the phone and seven days later I was in the lobby of the Northeast Planned Parenthood clinic, my pockets stuffed with free condoms.

Nervously, I turned the pages of National Geographic for 90 minutes while waiting my turn in the stirrups. Finally the resident gynecologist (a kindly grandmother type) arrived, and I lay down flat-backed on the exam table. She punctuated all discussion of STDs with "honey" and "dear." The dreaded Q-tip came, swabbed, and went. Soon, I was handed a lunch sack full of birth control, provided at no charge thanks to the federal Family Planning Expansion Project, and sent out into the summer sunshine with one ritual of adulthood responsibility safely under my belt.

Price Tag: Sliding scale based on income, or you might qualify to have state or federal governments foot your whole bill (so your visit is free if you're as poor as me).
Paperwork: Make an appointment or you'll be waiting forever. To qualify for a free first visit, you'll need ID or proof of citizenship (like a passport). If you're able to pay, you don't need any ID.
Place: Planned Parenthood has clinics all over Portland. Check out plannedparenthood.org.

EYES

Yeah, whatever, I wear square-rimmed hipster glasses. Think of them as the tribal facial scars of us kids who wasted our youth reading Redwall instead of engaging in wholesome physical activity. If only I'd known afternoons with paperback books about dueling badgers would later take periodic $120 bites from my wallet for eye doctor visits.... After a lot of phone calling, I was happy to find that at Portland Vision Center, a comparatively meager $50 buys me an entire hour with a friendly intern in his last year of optometry school.

While I sit in a high chair behind an owl-eyed machine full of lenses, the intern runs me through a battery of silly tests. He pokes a ball on a stick into my peripheral vision. He dyes my eyes yellow and asks me to stare left, right, left. After every test he says, "Good job" and I feel like a winner. A bored winner. While it takes him twice as long to administer the little competitive experiments as my full-price optometrist, the intern definitely knows what he's doing. At the end, he even issues a diagnosis and writes me a prescription for a set of computer glasses. At $30, they are affordable, too, if I go a few weeks without new shoes or artisanal bread.

Price Tag: $50
Paperwork: You need a social security number and an appointment. The clinic also told me I'd need proof of income to get the reduced rate, but then never checked for it.
Place: Portland Vision Center, 511 SW 10th, #500, 352-2500

DENTAL

Finding cheap dental is hell. An hour of calling every dental school in Portland turns up only one that will schedule a preventative dental exam—they can squeeze me in six months from now. Right when I've given up on getting my teeth cleaned for cheap, a friend dispenses a hot tip: free dental clinic in the deep Southeast this Saturday only! The clinic turns out to be "Compassion Southeast," a day of free health care organized by a cadre of Portland churches. I haul myself out of bed at 8 am on Saturday, June 14, and catch a bus to an elementary school near SE 82nd.

The place is covered with volunteers in color-coordinated T-shirts handing out free lunches and information about social services. Clark Blakeman, director of community relations at a SE Portland church, is one of the people in charge. He tells me that the idea for the daylong free clinic came about during a church trip to do medical work in Mexico.

"We realized there's a lot of people in Portland who don't have medical care," he says. "So why do we always leave the country?"

Blakeman's church and others rounded up 300 volunteers, five doctors, and six dentists to transform an elementary school into a patchwork clinic for a day. I wait among a crowd of mostly immigrant families for an hour until a cheerful teenager shows me to Mrs. Neef's second-grade classroom, which has a sign reading "Dental Triage" taped to the door. A dentist motions me in and we sit hunched up in absurdly small children's chairs while he takes down my history. Soon, I have a number for an appointment for 11:30 am.

I wait in the school cafeteria. The place is buzzing with activity: This is health care with free face painting and haircuts. Church volunteers raffle off children's bikes every hour and families sit in circles, eating complimentary cookies unironically distributed to waiting dental patients.

Noon comes and goes. Part of the cafeteria is cordoned off as a "Prayer Corner" and soon a woman with bobbed hair and a big white smile stops by to place a hand on the knee of the small girl next to me. They both close their eyes, the girl folds her hands on top of her giant stuffed-animal puppy and the woman begs God to "restore some health to her teeth." Eventually I realize I'll have to pray my teeth clean, too. After five hours of waiting, the clinic director tells me I can't be seen. There are not enough dentists, she apologizes—not enough time for a non-emergency patient like me. That's the way with American health care, which deemphasizes preventative care and only sees patients in crisis.

Price Tag: Paid nothing, got nothing
Paperwork: None
Place: Instead of stumbling upon a church-sponsored health care day, you're better off trying to make the once-a-month walk-in dental clinic at Outside In. During the school year, dental schools around Portland offer discount services.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is at the top of the short list of things—like eggs and sushi—that I should not buy at an alarmingly reduced price. But for better or worse, Portland has a thriving communist acupuncture community, which means lots of cheap and well-intentioned acupuncturists are roaming the streets.

"Welcome Comrades!" reads the website of NE Fremont's Working Class Acupuncture. Photos showed attractive acupuncturists in black T-shirts reading, "Join the Revolution!" I decided to throw all my capitalist caution to the wind. I flung open the doors of Working Class Acupuncture and found myself at the epicenter of the calmest revolution ever staged. An older woman with a rich accent invited me to brew a cup of catnip and chamomile tea while I waited.

I sipped the relaxing blend and sunk into a soft sofa, soon meeting my acupuncturist, who wore a shirt emblazoned with an up-thrust fist of power, but had kind hands and a soft and deliberate demeanor. He led me into a room that can only be described as a new-age nest: Oriental flute music drifted among squishy reclining chairs lit with low yellow light from nautilus shell-shaped lamps. Several middle-age women dozed in their chairs, snoring. I lay in my own chair and the strong-handed acupuncturist poked a line of needles into my arms, face, and legs—and immediately I slipped into sleep.

I woke up alone, in the dark, with a needle between my eyes. I stifled a scream and the acupuncturist drifted back into my cave soon enough—I'd slept for almost two hours and the clinic had been waiting to close. He pulled the needles out swiftly, but kindly, and bid me good-bye. I exited in a bizarre dream state and boarded my bicycle. Only then did I feel my hand tensing up. Soon a painful bruise spread from my index finger to my wrist and my hand. Communist acupuncture gave me a good nap and a hearty bruise. After a total of 12 hours spent in waiting rooms and $85 spent on doctors in a two-week span, a good long nap was actually the best medicine I received.

Price Tag: Sliding scale ($15-$45 per session), plus $10 first-time sign-up fee
Paperwork: You need an appointment
Place: Working Class Acupuncture, 3526 NE 57th, 335-9440

The best place to find yourself a low-cost Portland clinic is coalitionclinics.org.

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