Jewish Free Clinic’s doors stay open in Santa Rosa as service demands skyrocket
First-time visitors to the Jewish Community Free Clinic in Santa Rosa often have a checklist of concerns aside from whatever ailment has brought them there.
Do I have to be Jewish?
Is it really free?
“People sort of can’t believe it,” Donna Waldman, the clinic’s longtime executive director, said of the incredulousness. “They ask all our volunteers: ‘Where does this come from? Who pays for this?’”
The Montgomery Drive clinic was founded in 2001 on the Jewish principles of Tzedakah — charity and justice — and Tikkun Olam — repairing the world. However, everyone is welcomed, no matter their faith or ability to pay.
The clinic is on pace to set a new record for patient interactions this year, reflecting both the value and challenge of providing free health care during a global pandemic.
“We’ve had severe increases in demand for service,” Waldman, a clinic co-founder, said. “We’re busier than ever.”
The free medical services include primary care visits, mental health diagnosis and treatment, acupuncture, school and work physicals, tuberculosis tests for employment and vaccinations.
Most patients have no health insurance. The clinic helps people on a one-time or short-term basis while they explore other options for ongoing care.
Waldman said the clinic is seeing a more diverse clientele amid the pandemic, including insured patients who are having a challenging time getting an appointment with their usual health xccare provider.
“We are all about access to healthcare, and access can be a problem for people even if they have the means,” she said. “During the pandemic, there’s been a lot of disruption in the supply chain, so to speak, so if someone calls up and says I really need to see a doctor, they come see us.”
Waldman estimates that having the clinic as a resource saves local hospitals more than $1 million annually in emergency health care costs.
“We’re the safety net of the safety nets,” she said.
The clinic is an unaffiliated, private nonprofit organization that relies primarily on charitable grants and donations for funding. It also received COVID-19 relief funds.
Still, it is a stretch for the clinic to cover its projected $500,000 budget - which also would be a record. Waldman said she’s noticed a worrisome dip in donations, which she attributes to the pandemic.
She estimates the medical staff provides as much as $800,000 annually in pro bono care, led by Clinical Director Deborah Roberts, a nurse and vice president of faculty affairs at Sonoma State University.
Joshua Weil, the clinic’s medical director, is assistant physician in chief for hospital operations at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa.
“It’s like neighbors providing for neighbors,” Waldman said in describing how the clinic manages to stay afloat. “Our biggest resources are our volunteers and our support staff. It’s really magical.”