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Gary Stone mural at Wellness Tree Community Clinic

Artist Gary Stone unveils a new mural Nov. 21 night at the Wellness Tree Community Clinic in Twin Falls.

BOISE — Free medical clinics such as the Wellness Tree in Twin Falls may soon be exempt from paying sales taxes.

“Growth in the free clinic services will help the health and welfare of our uninsured neighbors,” bill sponsor Rep. Clark Kauffman, R-Filer, told the House Revenue and Taxation Committee Thursday.

The bill would add free clinics that are registered with the state Department of Health and Welfare to the line in the law that exempts some other medical institutions such as hospitals from paying sales tax. The Revenue and Tax committee voted unanimously to send the bill to the House floor for a vote.

There are 10 such free clinics in the state, from Sandpoint to Pocatello, providing a variety of medical services to people who are at or below the poverty level, most of whom are also uninsured. The Wellness Tree Community Clinic in Twin Falls is the only one in south-central Idaho.

The bill would cost the state a little less than $11,000 in an average year. Kauffman argued the loss of revenue is worth it. Free clinics saw more than 18,000 people last year, he said, providing about $2.9 million worth of medical services and also helping to save the state and counties on money they would otherwise spend on indigent health care. Assuming 20 percent of those free clinic patients went to an emergency room with an average visit cost of $1,178, Kauffman said, the clinics could have saved the state and counties $4.2 million. Letting the clinics keep the money that would go to sales tax, he said, will allow them to provide more services.

Kauffman brought the bill after talking to Arne Walker, the executive director of the Wellness Tree, who said he has been interested in creating the exemption for the past few years. The exemption will especially help, he said, when free clinics are trying to expand the services they offer. In 2015, for example, the Wellness Tree expanded to offer dental services and spent about $50,000 on new equipment, all of which was taxed.

“It’s just one more barrier removed, especially when we have large purchases,” he said.

Walker pointed to the interest the state Attorney General’s office has expressed in regulating nonprofits more closely to make sure charitable donations are used for the purpose for which they are donated.

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“The same general principle applies,” he said.

Walker said his clinic had about 2,600 visitors last year, although some of them were repeat visitors. More than half of his patients, he said, are working poor. The hope, he said, is that their patients will move on to more stable situations so they don’t have to come to the clinic anymore.

“We help keep them healthy enough so they can get back on their feet, and then we don’t see them any longer,” he said.

Josh Campbell, programs director of the Genesis Community Clinic in Garden City, told the committee the story of a man named Don, an auto mechanic in Garden City who didn’t make enough from his business to afford insurance and who was a patient for several years, receiving treatment for his skin and dental problems. Today, Campbell said, Don receives health care through Medicaid but he volunteers at the clinic regularly and serves on the Garden City Community Collaborative, “a member of our community giving back because of what he was given.”

“This is a blessing for all the free medical clinics around our state as well as to those we serve,” Campbell said of the bill.

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