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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

As the cost of health care continues to rise, people are looking for new ways to cover their medical needs. At a health care clinic near Portland, Maine the doctors are accepting an unusual type of currency. Here's independent producer Eric Molinsky.

LESLEY JONES: Hi,

DEB BARTH: guys.

Hi, Lesley.

JONES: Welcome. Hi, Deb. How are you? Hi, Deb. Good to see you.

BARTH: You, too.

ERIC MOLINSKY: This afternoon, Deb Barth is going to rake leaves for Lesley Jones.

JONES: Everything that you would ever need is in this potting shed.

BARTH: Excellent.

JONES: Come on back out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER AND RAKING)

MOLINSKY: Barth isn't earning money for her yard work, at least not physical currency. She's earning something called time dollars. For every two hours that she spends doing odd jobs, she'll earn a free visit with her doctor.

As a struggling artist, Barth's income qualifies her for the program at True North, a non-profit health care clinic in Falmouth, Maine. She's one of thirty-three patients that pay with time dollars there.

BARTH: I do things like deep cleaning, organizing. I also offer caregiver support for people who may be caring for an older parent.

MOLINSKY: So how does her doctor cash in on these time credits that he earns? By getting free services from any of the other hundreds of people that belong to the Portland Hour Exchange Program. Tom Dahlborg is the executive director of True North. He used to work in Medicaid, where he thought the patients weren't getting enough from their health care.

TOM DAHLBORG: People would come in for care and they would be like, OK, give me what you can, that's fine. And they really weren't engaged in it. It was almost like a guilt, like, oh, it's free care, so I don't really deserve that much anyways.

MOLINSKY: But he thinks the patients that pay with time dollars at True North are fully engaged.

DAHLBORG: We'll hear from, a landscaper who will say, I mowed five lawns in the last month so I could bring my children in to see your pediatric nurse practitioner. This darn well better be good visit.

MOLINSKY: They certainly get a lengthy visit. Patients are allowed to spend up to an hour or more with their doctors.

DAHLBORG: They're developing empathy and trust together, which by the way is in Hippocratic Oath. However, most people see that as woo-woo stuff.

BARTH: They don't just want to get just medical information from you. They want to get a spiritual background. It's not like, OK, what's your religion? But it's, OK, what does your life look like? And as a result I've learned how to negotiate my own health, which has been a huge value.

MOLINSKY: There's another reason why doctors here think that time banking works well for low-income patients - no red tape.

JENNIFER LUNDEN: That's actually not even a small deal.

MOLINSKY: Therapist Jennifer Lunden has worked with True North and MaineCare, the state's Medicare program.

LUNDEN: For me, the biggest burden of taking - especially MaineCare - is the amount of paperwork and the amount of hoops that need to be jumped through. And I really love that I have a way that I can offer what I do to people who don't have any insurance or are underinsured.

MOLINSKY: But they can't meet all the needs of their patients. Deb Barth doesn't have health insurance. If she goes to an emergency room or needs to see a specialist who isn't affiliated with True North, she's paying out of pocket. And if her income goes up, she won't even be able to use time dollars at True North any longer.

But according to Tom Dahlborg, the biggest problem isn't finding patients that want to take part in the program, it's finding doctors that are willing to go outside the system and barter for health care.

DAHLBORG: It's still very difficult from a pragmatic perspective to go from a guaranteed salary where insurance is driving business to you. It's also scary for younger physicians who still have debt load from their education.

MOLINSKY: The folks at True North know that their model is very limited. But they still hope to inspire other health care clinics to consider alternative means of payment.

For NPR news, I'm Eric Molinsky.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And you can learn more about True North and the Portland Hour Exchange at NPR.org.

This is NPR News.

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