Worth celebrating: 40 years of free medical attention

Worth celebrating: 40 years of free medical attention

By Douglas Hill

2023 marks the 40th anniversary of Tacoma’s Neighborhood Clinic. The clinic will be holding a celebration to mark the occasion on Oct. 14 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Bichsel Hall rec center on the campus of the St. Leo Church, located at Yakima Avenue and South 13th Street. Tickets for the event are available at www.neighborhoodclinictacoma.org.

Likely, you’ve never heard of the Neighborhood Clinic. But it may be one of the most important community resources in Pierce County.

The clinic was started in 1983 by Father Bill Bichsel and members of the St. Leo Parish community, and is located in the former St Leo High School, with the goal of providing compassionate medical care to the people in need in Tacoma’s Hilltop Neighborhood.  In 1989, Neighborhood Clinic became a completely independent, 501(c)(3) non-profit health clinic, and is now supported by many denominations. The physical condition of the school building in the 1980s was very poor. In the ‘90s, the building was taken over Catholic Community Services and completely renovated for housing CCS and other charities. The clinic is still there, at 1323 S. Yakima Ave., and provides a modern facility for limited types of current urgent healthcare.

The clinic is governed by a board of community volunteers from various backgrounds and professions. The board employs only three paid staff–an executive director, a clinic coordinator, and a receptionist/medical assistant. 

The clinic is open Monday and Thursday evenings from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. but doesn’t close until the last patient is seen. Two to three care providers (physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners) are there each night, along with two nurses, two clinical support workers, a social worker, and interpreters as available. The number of people volunteering in these capacities each year numbers in the dozens. None of them are compensated for their service but for the satisfaction of assisting people in need in our community. It is typical to hear a volunteer say this type of satisfaction and caring is why they got into the field of medicine to begin with. 

The goal continues to be helping all underserved patients by providing free immediate primary care for urgent and/or ongoing chronic medical conditions. For follow-up care, the clinic utilizes an onsite social worker to refer patients for affordable followup care in a primary care medical home.

If there is one thing that the Neighborhood Clinic has always had a supply of, it’s patients needing medical help. The number of patients being seen continues to grow. In 2022, it treated 1,633 patient visits, up 20 percent from 2021. As many as 2,000 patient visits are anticipated in 2023.

Typically, the patients can’t access the routine medical system.  Many are in transition, suffering homelessness or various mental health disabilities, have no medical insurance, and/or are non-English speaking. The clinic utilizes volunteers who speak a language or use the telephonic foreign language service to communicate with patients when needed. The latest wave of refugees, not surprisingly, are Ukrainian.  The clinic is open to everyone and doesn’tt take appointments. Those in need simply need to show up an hour before the doors open and sign in and wait their turn. 

Patients are never charged a dime.  But needless to say, the care is only partially free. The board is responsible for paying its three employees, rent for the facility, utilities, insurance, and other expenses. The budget for 2023 is approximately $250,000.

If you want to learn more or make an online donation, you can visit our website at www.neighborhoodclinictacoma.org. 

Douglas Hill is a member of the Neighborhood Clinic’s board.