Ten days ago, Jeanne Bailey got good news from Washington: Her nonprofit medical clinics in St. Paul would receive a $650,000 federal grant to hire dentists and other medical staff.
But she didn't quite rejoice until Thursday -- the day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act. Among its many provisions, the landmark federal health law set aside hundreds of millions of dollars to fund clinics such as hers that serve low-income and uninsured patients across the country.
"It's a great day for us. We are gratified, delighted and relieved," said Bailey, chief executive officer of United Family Medicine.
Had the law been overturned, its five-year, $11 billion trust fund to expand community clinics would have been eliminated. "There would have been a real question as to the long-term presence of those clinics,'' said Rhonda Degelau, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Community Health Centers. The clinics, she said, "came perilously close to facing a funding crisis."
Since its passage in 2010, the act has poured $28.7 million into expanding these "safety net" providers in Minnesota alone. Together, Minnesota's 17 Federally Qualified Health Centers serve more than 175,000 people a year.
With the law upheld, the clinics will have more resources to provide primary care and medications, as well as specialists such as cardiologists, oncologists and dentists.
United, for example, started designing a dental clinic in 2006. But the new unit now sits empty because the organization hasn't had money to staff it.
Providing dental services, Bailey said, is the primary mission of the new federal grant. If the law had been struck down, United would have had money to cover expenses for one year, but "would have been very concerned about sustainability and being able to provide services" after that, she said.
Now, United has some financial breathing room to treat patients such as Pete Butikis.
"I haven't been to the dentist since I lost my insurance four years ago," said Butikis, 64, who stopped by the clinic this week.
Dental care can be expensive, and many providers don't accept Medicare or Medicaid. For many low-income and uninsured patients, community health clinics are the only recourse. In addition to expanding dental care, United will invest the grant in primary care.
Although community clinics have been an important fallback for Minnesota's 490,000 uninsured residents, they also expect to see more patients who have insurance as the 2010 federal law gradually expands coverage.
That could mean better care for all patients.
Val Jensen, 47, a single mother and lawyer, first came to United four years ago, after she was denied coverage because she is diabetic. She switched jobs, and her new employer didn't offer insurance.
She applied for MinnesotaCare, a subsidized insurance plan for low-income workers, but had to forego her insulin and heart medication for three months before she became eligible.
"I don't think people understand how stressful it is ... to not have access when you're trying to take care of your family," she said, her eyes tearing. The clinic saved her, she says.
For her, Thursday's court decision was a momentous event: "I was amazed!" she said. "It's a matter of life and death. It's not just a matter of convenience."
Daniela Hernandez • 612-673-4088