Where Do Undocumented Immigrants Go for Medical Care?

PHOENIX, Ariz.—Two years ago, a husband and wife bought a bungalow in downtown Phoenix for $85,000. They cleaned out the refuse and junk, and spent another $65,000 to convert the home's four rooms, kitchen, and living room into a health care clinic.

Bob and Amy McMullen had marched in protests against Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 and the immigration raids that gained national notoriety for Phoenix in the immigration debate. Bob had a background in health care as a physician's assistant. And Amy, an EMT, joined a group that gave medical aid to injured protesters. It was in these clashes, marching alongside undocumented immigrants, that the McMullens dreamed up Phoenix Allies for Community Health.

They now provide free health care to Phoenix's growing population of adults and children living in poverty. It's a population the McMullens say would otherwise depend on more costly emergency room visits.

"Undocumented people have no access to Medicaid or insurance," Amy says. "And a lot of people on the market can't afford their deductible—if you've got a $4,000 deductible and some crappy job, how are you going to afford that?"

Of the 10 metropolitan areas in the country with the largest Hispanic populations, Phoenix has the highest Hispanic poverty rate and the lowest median annual household income, according to a 2012 Pew Hispanic Center report. Add to this the huge population of undocumented immigrants who live in the shadows without social services, and the clinic fills a huge need in the area.

"These are people who are totally willing to pay for their health care, but they just can't afford the prices in the regular system," says Jason Odhner, 38, a volunteer nurse at the clinic.

The clinic survives with the aid of volunteer doctors and nurses. Donations pay for supplies. Last year the clinic only brought in $30,000, just enough to cover the monthly lab fees. Still, its providers regularly see about 250 patients.

The most common ailments patients report are diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol, which can all be deadly when untreated.

"Many of those are totally preventable," Odhner says.

It's silent diseases like these that force many uninsured people into emergency rooms, where treatments can be extremely costly.

"I don't want to say that society should take care of people who are sick because it's more cost-effective," Odhner says. "We should do it because it's humane, and we have responsibility to take care of them. That being said, it does save money."

The clinic holds office hours each day, and each week the McMullens or their volunteers host health care seminars, including dietary workshops. They even make house calls.

Ali W. Salcedo and Juan D. Freitez contributed video to this report.

National Journal recently visited Phoenix to see how some local people and organizations have taken it upon themselves to prepare for the Latino majority population shift. In the coming weeks, Next America will publish a series of stories about how these people are shaping their community and the future of Phoenix.