Tuesday, January 15, 2008 - New generation begins at Zarephath
By Bob Makin - staff writer, Courier News, Bridgewater, NJ
FRANKLIN (Somerset) — For four years, Zarephath Health Center in the Zarephath section has helped churches meet the health-care needs of the poor, uninsured and under-insured.
At 1 a.m. Saturday at Somerset Medical Center, Somerville, the Christian health clinic's first baby was born.
Weighing 8 pounds and 6 ounces, Michael was born to Fred and Rachel Cole of Union.
Zarephath Health Center provided free prenatal care and will fund the delivery, which will cost $5,000 — a rate the clinic is negotiating with the hospital.
The unprecedented effort between a nonprofit clinic and a hospital could pave the way for more affordable health care, said Dr. Alieta Eck, an internist and co-founder of Zarephath Health Center.
"We believe it is very difficult for the government to provide cost-effective, high-quality health care," said Eck, who founded the clinic with her husband, John, a family practitioner. "The administrative overhead is too high, and there is so much waste and overuse in any bureaucratic system. Inevitably, quality goes down and access becomes an issue. Since we are staffed 90 percent by volunteers, our expenses are low."
Based on the Pillar of Fire campus of Zarephath Christian Church, the clinic is not charged rent by the church. Patients can donate what they can afford in a box in the waiting room.
Members of Zarephath Christian Church and other churches also make tax-deductible donations regularly, Eck said. Since opening in September 2003, the clinic's donations have risen from $15,000 to $50,000, she said.
While the clinic's funds are increasing, hospitals' are declining, Eck said. Muhlenberg Medical Center in Plainfield recently announced that it is up for sale, and two hospitals in Newark announced they are closing: St. James and Columbus.
"They are owned by a private corporation that cannot continue to operate if they lose $6 million every month," Eck said. "City and state governments are not in a position to help."
The clinic sees 100 to 150 patients each month. Fred Cole said he is happy his wife and baby were among them.
A business consultant for the Subway restaurant chain, Cole was unable to afford the $1,400 monthly cost for health insurance that Subway provided its subcontractors through The Hartford insurance company. He and his wife went to several hospitals and were quoted from $24,000 to $40,000 for the delivery, plus obstetric care.
"This was overwhelming to them," Eck said. "It turns out that Blue Cross/Blue Shield pays around $5,700 for a delivery, Medicaid pays $800 and charity care essentially pays nothing. So we thought that we could help both the family and the hospital if we were able to negotiate the same as an insurance company."
At the negotiated rate, Somerset Medical Center will receive six times more than Medicaid would have paid.
Eck said she believes that continued efforts of nonprofit clinics will ensure hospitals remain viable.
"We believe that ours is a better way," she said, "paying a fair price for services rendered, yet not having to pay the extraordinary premiums expected by health insurance companies in New Jersey, and not expecting overtaxed New Jerseyans to foot the bill for all the uninsured. Everyone wins."
The Ecks live in Franklin and have been attending Zarephath Christian Church since 1995. Licensed since 1980 and in private practice since 1987, the couple was inspired to open the clinic after reading "The Tragedy of American Compassion" by Marvin Olasky.
They approached the church not only to provide free care but also to be a faith bridge into the community, Eck said.
"We can reach people and show them that God loves them," she said.
When an ultrasound was donated last year, the clinic was able to offer prenatal care, which it did for Rachel Cole up until the last month of her pregnancy. At that point, she received care from the Family Practice residency at Somerset Medical Center.
For more information about Zarephath Health Center, e-mail ZHCenter@aol.com.