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Insurance costs stall free clinic

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The volunteer doctors are lined up to help, but the high cost of insurance is keeping the doors shut at a free clinic planned for an Astoria health center.

The Medical Society of the County of Queens, a Forest Hills-based professional group, wants to begin a free health clinic for uninsured patients at an Astoria facility owned by the New York Hospital Medical Center of Queens. But the society's plans are stalled because the retired physicians must purchase their own malpractice insurance before they can volunteer.

"Physicians all over the country, many of them retired, are volunteering their time and expertise in clinics to provide free health care to the uninsured," said Dr. Ralph Schlossman, who organized the effort. "Yet here in New York City, which has perhaps the highest concentration of uninsured citizens in the nation, physicians who want to volunteer their time are being told they must first purchase their own liability insurance."

Liability insurance for primary care physicians would range from $5,000 to $10,000 per year, Schlossman said.

NYHQ has not yet committed to plans for the clinic at its Astoria site, and the Medical Society is also considering other possible locations, Schlossman said.

The group is lobbying the state Legislature to pass a bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Thomas DiNapoli (D-Great Neck) that would indemnify physicians from liability when providing voluntary care. Assemblywoman Ann-Margaret Carrozza (D-Bayside) is sponsoring a companion bill that would waive the $650 state registration fee for these physicians.

The plans for the Astoria health clinic have been in the works for more than a year, but stalled because of the issue of malpractice insurance, Burbige said.

"They [the volunteers] are retired," Burbige said. "They drop their malpractice insurance, which is very costly."

If the state Legislature passes the bill, the society hopes to use the Astoria clinic as a pilot program for other similar projects throughout Queens, Burbige said. The clinics would provide primary and preventive care to uninsured patients, taking some pressure off hospital emergency rooms.

Schlossman said free health clinics are especially crucial in Queens, which has high rates of uninsured patients.

A study published last month by the Commonwealth Fund, a Manhattan-based non-profit organization, found that 33 percent of Queens residents had no health insurance, the highest rate in the city. More than half of those uninsured New Yorkers also have difficulty getting access to medical care, compared with 14 percent of those with insurance, the study found.

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