Rick Segal, left, and Carmelo Mejia, internal medicine doctors with Kaiser Permanente in Salem, type notes during a shift at Salem Free Clinic (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Rick Segal sat at a long desk between two other doctors, quickly typing notes on a laptop before returning to an exam room.

He normally works in Kaiser Permanente’s North Lancaster clinic, but on Tuesday, he worked at Salem Free Clinic to treat new patients who don’t have health insurance.

The free clinic is a faith-based nonprofit that cares for thousands of patients per year with help from doctors and other providers who donate their time.

Segal said many previously had been under treatment for chronic health problems like diabetes or high blood pressure. But then they lost insurance coverage because of a job switch or ended up on a high deductible plan where they can’t afford an appointment.

“To come into the office may be quite an expense for them,” he said. He tries to refill prescriptions for common medications for a year so patients can take care of their health even if they can’t get another appointment for a while.

Segal was one of six Kaiser doctors and four nurses who took a break Tuesday from their regular work to see dozens of clinic patients at no charge. It’s part of a Kaiser effort to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day through encouraging employee community service. 

Kaiser employees are encouraged to take the holiday as a “paid day on” and volunteer in their communities, spokeswoman Kim Mounts said. Many in the Salem area took on projects for local schools on Monday or worked caring for parks.

On Monday, Kaiser dental providers staffed the free clinic. Kaiser also gave them $8,000 to help cover operating costs.

Salem Free Clinic provides free medical and dental care to about 2,000 people without health insurance in Marion and Polk counties every year, clinic director John McConville said.

Some, like the ones Segal saw, are between jobs or have a gap in coverage. Most simply can’t find affordable health insurance, often because they make just enough money that they don’t qualify for Oregon Health Plan, but not enough to buy insurance, McConville said.

Salem Free Clinic executive director John McConville shows the supply of donated insulin in the clinic's lab room. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter) DATE: 1/21/20

The clinic started in 2005 as an outreach of West Salem Foursquare Church and moved into its current site on Broadway Avenue in 2010. It runs with about 10 part-time staff who oversee administration and help connect patients with other services. But day-to-day appointments are largely handled by volunteer doctors, nurses and medical interpreters.

McConville said they’ve been blessed with good volunteers, but the clinic still gets backlogged. Sometimes patients have to wait two or three weeks for an appointment.

And many patients need specialty care, McConville said. Providers there can make referrals, and staff can help patients find free or discounted help, but the process takes time.

“People just put off care because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Kaiser cut that wait by making specialists available online so patients didn’t have to wait to get a more detailed opinion from an orthopedist or neurologist.

McConville said the Kaiser team was able to see many patients.

“The Kaiser providers are very fast. They’re very efficient,” he said.

Carmelo Mejia, another Kaiser doctor who volunteered Tuesday, said it’s a different challenge for him than his regular practice.

Patients tend to come to the free clinic with similar problems, but they’re often more advanced such as an ear infection they’ve endured for months.

“Some of them have not seen a clinician in a long time,” he said.

Segal said volunteering is a way to support his belief that everyone in the U.S. should have access to health care.

“It seems very odd to me that we don’t have a national health insurance so people fall between the cracks,” he said.

Mejia said he appreciates everything good in his life that’s come from working in health care and wants to share that gratitude.

“It’s my way of giving back,” he said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.