11 Alive WXIA-TV Atlanta (Georgia) - by Jerry Carnes
An 11Alive News examination of stimulus funds has uncovered over a million dollars spent on health care for migrant workers and a mobile medical unit that spends most of the year parked.
President Obama's $800 billion stimulus program approved $1.1 million to expand Georgia's Farmworker Health Program. The program has existed since 1990 to provide inexpensive health care to the migrant workers who toil in the fields of South Georgia.
Decatur County got the lion's share of the stimulus money. More than a quarter million dollars of the stimulus funds were spent on a mobile medical unit that hits the road eight or ten times a year to visit farms.
Most of the year, the unit is parked outside of the Farmworker Health Clinic in Bainbridge.
"I'd like to see it utilized more," said clinic director Shelia Ramer. "It's wonderful if we had a power outage or something happened to our building we have a clinic we could go and set up and see patients."
Migrant workers who visit either the clinic or the mobile unit are charged $25 for a basic exam. Federal regulations do not require nurses to ask a patient for proof of legal status.
Ramer agrees many who use the service are likely here illegally.
"We don't ask," she said.
The intent of the federal stimulus program was to create jobs and jump start the economy. The $1.1 million spent on the Farmworker Health Program created only a handful of jobs. Most if not all of them are now gone.
More than $100,000 was used to open a day clinic for migrant workers in Grady County. Four part-time workers were hired. The clinic didn't see the demand that was expected. When the stimulus funds ran out after two years, the clinic closed and the jobs vanished.
There were no jobs created by the 535,000 spent to purchase three mobile medical units sent to three areas of South Georgia.
One of the farmers whose workers have benefited from the mobile unit stationed in Bainbridge was unaware federal stimulus dollars that paid the bill.
"I thought stimulus would go more to building our infrastructure and the sort of things that would put people to work in a job," said Greg Murray.
The money was spread over six clinics in South Georgia.
Those clinics received $437,000 that was used to expand services. According to the Georgia Department of Community Health's State Office of Rural Health, the money allowed the clinics to see an additional 4,721 patients. The average cost to treat each patient, according to the state, was $92. The Department of Community Health says that cost is in line with a typical doctor's visit and less than a non-emergency hospital visit.
Another $727,000 went to the purchase of the three mobile units, equipment, and a modular medical clinic for Lowndes County.
Meanwhile, the migrant workers who are supposed to benefit from the stimulus funds are vanishing from the fields of South Georgia.
After the Georgia state legislature passed its get-tough immigration law last year, Greg Murray saw the crew of migrant workers that typically work his fields shrink by a third.
Because of that, Murray has switched from tomatoes to potatoes and cotton, crops that can be planted and picked with machinery rather than a crew of migrants.
The mobile medical unit used to visit his farm twice a year.
"Not anymore," said Murray. "No need for it now."
Still, Shelia Ramer insists the money spent on the mobile unit is worth it.
"During our summer project we see over a thousand people," said Ramer. "We're looking to utilize it more, to go to churches and schools and places like that."
Georgia's Department of Community Health oversees the Farmworker Health Program...and insists the spending of stimulus funds is all within the guidelines in the stimulus program.
That includes the $280,000 mobile medical unit that you can find most days sitting unused in downtown Bainbridge.