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Alice Nolan has a doctor with whom she can discuss the details of her health, but it isn’t always convenient to make an appointment and spend time flipping through magazines in the waiting room. And there’s always a cost associated with those visits.

To defray some of the time and money she would otherwise spend with her physician, Nolan joined hundreds of local residents this month at an annual health fair where she was treated to free lab work that will check for several potentially serious medical conditions. Nolan, a Forest Park resident, said she made a point to attend the Nov. 7 Cindy Lyons Health Fair at the Community Center for a few very basic reasons.

“It was simple and easy,” Nolan said after having blood drawn for a series of tests. “There’s no waiting, and it’s free.”

The health fair is one of a number of social service programs offered through the Community Center and typically draws some 400 people, according to Director Beverly Thompson. The big attractions each year are the free influenza vaccines and other services that would otherwise come with a fee at a doctor’s office.

While the perks of a local health fair may include a few services, Thompson and members of the medical community cautioned that there’s simply no substitute for regular medical care.

“Health fairs on the whole can be very good, but if people use it as a one time visit it’s not very beneficial,” Cook County Health Department spokesperson Kitty Lowey said. “We believe people need medical homes.”

Though Thompson’s office isn’t targeting a particular demographic with its health fair, she admits it draws a senior crowd. The event is held during working hours, and the village arranges for transportation within town. Over the years Thompson said she has seen a lot of the same faces at the event.

Between 1990 and 2000, the number of people living both immediately below the poverty line and in excess of 200 percent below the poverty line in Forest Park has ticked up, according to the county health office. Also, the number of single moms has increased dramatically from fewer than 8 percent of the village’s population to nearly 18 percent. Fewer women are taking advantage of prenatal care options, too, according to statistics tracked between 1996 and 2003.

Of the more than 3,300 people in Forest Park earning an income that’s 200 percent below the poverty line in 2003, one-third were without health insurance of any kind, according to the county.

“These are the poorest of the poor,” Cook County Epidemiologist Tonia Singletary said. “That’s very important because usually if you look across the board, those people are even larger [in population] than those already considered to be poor. And it’s an even larger number of the really poor that don’t have access to the care.”

Singletary’s analysis holds true in Forest Park based on the latest U.S. Census data from 2000. While 1,074 people were living on wages that were 100 percent below the poverty line that year, more than 2,900 fell into Singletary’s category of being the “poorest of the poor.”

Lester Nixon attended this year’s health fair as he has for several years running. Nixon, who lives in an apartment complex in Forest Park, is disabled but has health insurance. His ophthalmologist was a vendor at the event offering free eye exams.

Nixon said he comes each year not to cash in on the freebies, but to stock up on the wealth of information that’s available and bring it back to his neighbors. For himself and others in his building, trying to track down the facts on diabetes, social networks and government programs can be daunting.

“I try to help people when I can,” Nixon said. “It’s nice to have everything in one location. It’s hard to get information.”

His approach to the health fair as a means of being able to follow up with area clinics should be the norm rather than the exception, according to Kari Fatta, the clinical coordinator for older adult services at Rush Oak Park Hospital. Fatta and others from the hospital expected to take some 200 blood samples in Forest Park that would be screened for prostate and thyroid problems, as well as cholesterol levels.

The results can be turned around in as little as two days, Fatta said, but the key is for people to take that information and bring it to their doctor. The hospital’s goal at the health fair was simply to provide information at no cost to the patient, not to act as a substitute for a thorough consultation.

Commissioner Rory Hoskins acknowledged the work done at the Community Center but said the village needs to bulk up its network of social service programs. Forest Park would do well to reach out to area hospitals and find ways to connect people with what is available, Hoskins said. The most vulnerable populations can be more difficult to reach, but that’s where the focus needs to be.

“If we can strengthen the safety net I think we’re doing the right thing,” Hoskins said.