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Filling the holes in health care

Friday, January 11th, 2013 | Posted by

By NICK WALDEN / Rohnert Park Correspondent

At the Jewish Community Free Clinic
Carin Wagner, a licensed acupuncturist, left,
and upper level acupuncture student
Heide Nielsen check inventory.
(Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

At a time when affordable health care is a hot-button topic, health care for those who can’t afford anything doesn’t get much attention.

Just over 11 years ago, that subject did come up, and Dr. Robin Lowitz decided to do something about it. Working with a small group of dedicated individuals that shared a common goal, she helped create the Jewish Community Free Clinic.

The idea and the facility started small, with one doctor seeing just 12 patients at the weekly clinic, but with hard work and the continual support of the community it has grown.

More than 150 volunteers and doctors now treat 60 patients at seven clinics throughout the week, 85 percent of whom are unemployed, underemployed or students who could not otherwise afford healthcare elsewhere.

The facility is viewed as a small miracle, a middle puzzle piece in the affordable health care system.

“The clinic is very important to the community,” said Dr. Deborah Roberts, who signed on in 2007 after moving to the area for a job at Sonoma State University and who now serves as clinical director. “We see patients for a limited time only and connect them with long-term healthcare, but we fill up every single clinic every single time.”

“There doesn’t seem to be an end to the new patients who are either recently uninsured or just found out about us.”

On Wednesdays, SSU’s School of Nursing now sends students enrolled in the Family Nurse Practitioner program to provide physicals and work with instructors on women’s health services.

“It has solidified the partnership with the university in our backyard,” Dr. Roberts said, “and it fills a need with women’s health. When I talk to students about coming to the clinic, I say, ‘Think of it as your monthly refill to your soul.’”

Dr. Lowitz had worked with other free clinics and felt Rohnert Park could use one, said Donna Waldman, a clinic co-founder and current executive director. When looking for financial support, she turned to the Jewish community because of its principles of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). Its doors are open to anyone.

Along with Dr. Lowitz and Waldman, co-founders Rita Kagan, Steve Einstein and Alice Perlman started the process of becoming a nonprofit in early 2001 and treated their first patients a year later in a one-room clubhouse.

“We literally would set up the clinic for that day and then clean up afterwards, locking the supplies in storage,” Waldman said. The clinic expanded into a three-room location and is now housed in the City Center complex.

“A lot of generous individuals and businesses donated time and money to make the new location,” Waldman said, including Friedman Bros. and Shamrock Cement.

“People ask all the time, ‘Why are you free?’<TH>” Waldman said. “We feel that having a free clinic increases access. They see ‘free,’ so they come in. Then we have partnerships and relationships to help people.”

With so many people burdened by financial troubles, the word can be a powerful motivator. A patient came to the clinic on Christmas because she had been sick with what she thought was the flu. She was diagnosed with meningitis that could have been fatal.

“That is a common story with us here,” Waldman added.

Patients start by having their vitals and blood sugar levels checked by the nurses, then are examined by a doctor. They also meet with social services representatives who help enroll them for public assistance programs such as CalFresh.

The clinic has also partnered with the Redwood Empire Food Bank to become a food pantry location.

Three general family practice clinics are offered each week on a drop-in basis. They offer consultations, well-child exams and treat patients with minor health problems. Those who need acupuncture are referred to a specialized Friday clinic that requires appointments. On Thursday afternoons, volunteers help clients enroll in community assistance and benefits programs.

Dr.­Roberts, who also chairs the Sonoma State University Nursing program, helped facilitate the Wednesday clinics for women’s health and physicals. She also has been able to use her experience with medical administration to put in place the policies and procedures that have allowed the clinic to grow.

Yet the clinic is always looking for more help. The grants it receives come from sources such as the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the Blue Shield Foundation, Medtronic and the Jewish Federation. It also is soliciting support from local businesses, since the clinic often helps care for employees who are left without health care.

“This is an incredible example of identifying a community need, then figuring out how to put it together .<TH>.<TH>. raise the money (to get it started) .<TH>.<TH>. and make it grow,” said Waldman. “It truly is a miracle. Even after all these years, the spirit still hasn’t changed. We are still entirely free and for the community.”

The clinic has only seven part-time employees who, with the help of volunteers, deliver more than $600,000 worth of medical services each year. Dr. Lowitz left the clinic after taking an out-of-state job, but returned a few years ago to practice in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol. She still acts as an advisor and sometimes volunteers.

“This just proves that any group in a community can find an unmet need and fill it,” Waldman added, “something that thousands of people benefit from is a source of great pride.”

The Jewish­Free Clinic is located at 490 City­Center Drive, Rohnert Park, 585-7780. For clinic schedules, information and volunteer applications, visit jewishfreeclinic.org.

Writer Spotlight

Nick Walden is our Rohnert Park + Cotati correspondent.
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