By Nancy Forrest | Information Press
December 1, 2011
After more than two years of hard work and preparation, the SLO Noor Foundation Free Clinic is open for business, and doctors are seeing patients eight hours per week on Fridays and Saturdays. A majority of the free clinic’s patients are Caucasian middle-class and small business owners who are employed but cannot afford to purchase health insurance and who cannot pay for health care services out-of-pocket.
Thirty percent of residents of San Luis Obispo County are uninsured, a rate five percent higher than the statewide average, said physician Ahmad Nooristani, who founded the clinic. Nooristani said he was surprised by the numerous roadblocks he encountered in order to establish the nonprofit free clinic including an arduous process of seeking a license and complying with city, state and federal regulations which, at times, was “beyond insanity.”
But Nooristani said he is grateful that the process is complete, and the volunteer doctors and other medical personnel at the clinic can now focus their efforts on providing quality health care for their patients. The clinic has 700 volunteers and one paid position—a full-time clinic manager.
“They asked ‘What can we do?’ This is very unique community and they wanted to give something back,’” he said. “Everything in the free clinic was donated. The free clinic has been a volunteer project that was started by many members of the community.”
Nooristani said he was inspired to establish the free clinic while seeing, first hand, that more than 4,000 patients visit local hospital emergency rooms as their sole source of health care because they had lost their job or their health insurance.
“We studied previous free clinics, and we wanted to provide health care services for the uninsured,” he said. “We have appointments for medical services booked until the first week of January, and the eye clinic until next June. If funding enables us to do it, we hope to have more days open during regular hours and perhaps a half day with appointments after 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., so working people can see a physician. We are a work-in-progress. Although the free clinic has only been open for one month, we have seen about 130 patients in eight hours each week. The need is absolutely there.”
The free clinic provides about $30,000 worth of medical services each month.
“I want San Luis Obispo County to be the healthiest county in the area,” the physician said. “We are the healthiest, but it is a reasonable goal to set. I am challenging everybody in the county to take more responsibility for their health care, search for it and ask for it. We are already the ‘happiest’ place to live, and I want us to be the ‘healthiest’ as well. Crazier things have happened.”
Nooristani said the lack of health insurance and adequate treatment of lingering health problems causes increased sick days and decreased workplace productivity, as well as an increase in untreated high blood pressure and other health problems that he considers the equivalent of a bomb waiting to go off.
“Prevention is important,” he said. “We can save millions and billions by preventative health care.”
He said the biggest surprise he has experienced since opening the clinic has been how appreciative the patients and his colleagues have been.
“They own a small business but don’t have health insurance, and paying for health care out-of-pocket is not an option because of the cost,” he said of his patients. “Many are educated people who know what their health care needs are and they are coming through our doors.”
Nooristani said the clinic must comply with all standards that apply to a hospital facility.
“We had to pay a lot of money to give free health care, but it has all been worth it in order to provide quality health care for patients and to see the level of appreciation we receive from them,” he said. “We have 50 doctors who are on-call, as well as nurses, physical therapists, and nutrition specialists, and we expect to be adding more medical specialties as our hours increase.”
Nooristani said he anticipates the clinic having future obstacles to comprehensive health care, including the need for increased laboratory services and technology to provide diagnostic imaging such as echocardiograms and ultrasound. The physician said he plans to hold fundraisers and seek grants, as well as donations from private and corporate donors, to fund the clinic.
“The more money we raise, the more services we are going to offer,” he said. “This is a very resourceful community that can help others. Hopefully, it’s going to be contagious. Ideally, I would like to share what I have learned through the approval process with others so they can repeat the same process of establishing a free clinic without having to reinvent the wheel. I hope it will shorten the time needed, enable them to avoid the mistakes I made, and provide the means to gather resources.”
“This has never been done before,” said Whitney Gordon, spokesperson for the free clinic. “We know that the need is never going to stop, so we are figuring out how to fund the clinic on a consistent basis. We are looking for generous people to help us do that.”
Nooristani, who immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan when he was 14 years old, attended high school in Simi Valley before attending California State University, Northridge and Atlantic City Regional Medical Center. For the past three years, he has worked in internal medicine at Sierra Vista Hospital and French Hospital, in addition to devoting about 20 hours per week to the free clinic. He said Afghanistan lacks any health care system, but he noted that the United States has health care but many people cannot use it.
How to help:
Tax-exempt contributions can be made to the Noor Free Clinic through slonoorfoundation.org