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Filling a void: Free health clinic opens in SLO

Doctor’s efforts and determination culminate to assist those in need

Ahmad Nooristani probably didn’t realize the wall he’d hit in creating a free health clinic in San Luis Obispo. Yet, three years after putting his shoulder to the task, he’s pulled down the wall one stumbling block at a time. His dream is now reality as the Noor Free Clinic has its grand opening today at 9:30 a.m.Located in the B-4 space at 1428 Phillips Lane, in the Bruington Professional Building, the clinic will be open for uninsured patients from 1 to 5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. It will expand its hours and services based on demand.It’s probably not too tall of an estimation to say that the clinic will be a game-changer in county health care. It’s been determined that about a third of the county’s residents don’t have any form of health insurance.Although many of those individuals seek medical care through the system of Community Health Centers — clinics that charge a sliding fee based on income — others were using the county’s emergency rooms for primary care purposes. Such situations burden doctors who are treating emergencies while adding costs to overall health care when a patient can’t pay.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I haven’t heard of the need for a free clinic,” Nooristani said. “That’s been a huge motivation for me.”

So the Afghan-born Nooristani (whose name translates to “Land of Hope”) began his quest several years ago and almost immediately ran into obstacles. It’s one thing to offer free services, it’s quite another to support those services.

Although he’s had a support team of several hundred people working on getting the clinic open — specialists, nurses, nutritionists, therapists, ophthalmologists, technicians and spokeswoman Whitney Gordon — he had to find financial sources for paying rent, liability insurance and expensive air filtration systems among a host of other anticipated and unknown costs.

Toward that end, Nooristani, an internist at French and Sierra Vista hospitals, created the tax-exempt, nonprofit Noor Foundation (“Inspiring Hope”). It also didn’t hurt that well-attended fundraisers kicked significant dollars into the operational kitty.

Along those lines, a major financial hurdle was cleared last week when the county Board of Supervisors enthusiastically gave the Noor Foundation a $75,000 grant that will cover the annual costs of lab work, which will be performed on-site to save time while reducing possible errors.

Other aspects of running a free clinic aren’t, well, free. Although doctors, specialists, nurses and an office manager, Tommy Barber, won’t be paid, the plan is that Barber will draw a paycheck in the future due to the anticipated day in, day out demands of his job.

Then there are the fixed costs, like monthly rent, insurance and office supplies. The cost of running the clinic on an annual basis isn’t yet known, spokeswoman Gordon said.

“The beauty of this project,” Nooristani said, “is that the more money that’s contributed, the more services we can offer. Every donated dime goes to health care. An X-ray machine would be great for preventive medicine.”

And that’s the key to the clinic: preventive medicine. Toward that end, the Noor Foundation clinic will offer diabetes annual exams, basic metabolic panels for blood and liver tests. An ophthalmologist will be at the clinic every fourth Thursday to offer free eye exams; glasses will be free.

Mammograms, colonoscopies and exams for lung, kidney, brain, ear, nose and throat will be available, as well as a podiatrist and physical and nutritional therapists.

“We’ll have classes dealing with heart failure and risk management, as well as classes on depression and anxiety,” Nooristani explained. “Every month, we’ll add a new specialty.”

Now, what’s to keep those who have the financial means or insurance from using the clinic’s services? Nothing. The good doctor isn’t going to screen anyone for income or insurance coverage. To do so, he said, would simply add another cost obstacle for those legitimately needing medical help.

“There may be about 5 percent who abuse the services,” he explained, “but they should remember that by doing so, they will be taking someone else’s place who has no insurance or means to pay.”

As it stands, Gordon said, “If the clinic has two providers for the current open hours from 1 to 5 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, we can see between 18 and 20 patients a day. With one provider, it’s about 10 patients a day. This is within the time frame of new patients. Patients who are seen for follow-ups will require less time.”

“For this Friday and Saturday,” she added, “the staff will consist of one physician, two nursing staff, one medical assistant, one front office person, one clinic manager and Dr. Nooristani who will be the ‘floater,’ filling the gaps as needed. So, we’ll probably see about 20 patients — give or take — this week.”

With word of the clinic’s opening being spread through the Prado Day Center, Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter and other homeless and low-income programs, patients will initially be treated on a first-come, first-served basis. The ideal situation is that no one waits longer than 15 minutes before being seen by a doctor.

• • •

“He’s inspiring,” said clinic manager Barber. “He’s like the Energizer Bunny.”

“I don’t know how he does it,” he added, of the 20-hour weeks Nooristani has put into the clinic while working seven days on, seven days off at Sierra Vista and French.

“I’m having a great time doing this,” Nooristani said, “knowing this fills a niche. It’s exciting to think of what this can do.”

The hazel-eyed physician, born in Kabul, Afghanistan, 35 years ago, emigrated to the U.S. in 1991 and subsequently earned college and medical degrees here. He found San Luis Obispo while interviewing on the West Coast and was captivated by “the different atmosphere here, the friendliness. It’s beautiful. You couldn’t ask for more.

“Coming from Afghanistan with nothing, and now this?” his voice trails off. “I’m living the American Dream.”

And the walls came tumbling down.

How to help

Tax-exempt contributions can be made to the Noor Free Clinic through slonoorfoundation.org.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com orat 781-7852.

One last thing stopping a free health clinic from opening

A doctor on the Central Coast is ready to open the doors to a free health clinic in San Luis Obispo, there is just one thing stopping him.

There are empty patient rooms ready to be filled with people who cannot afford health insurance.

Doctors will provide free medical and eye exams, which includes free glasses. There will be gynecology, neurology and radiology services, physical therapy, nutritional education and lung and kidney specialists.

The focus is on preventative medicine.

“The goal is to prevent people from going to the ER. Prevent that heart attack, prevent that stroke, prevent the patients who are going to need dialysis because they couldn’t come see a physician,” said Dr. Ahmad Nooristani.

He is the founder of the clinic, SLO Noor Foundation, and said he is trying to reach the middle class patients. “Part of the problem is with current insurance, the premium is getting higher, every visit costs a lot of money. I see a lot of people who do have a job they do have some income but they still cannot afford to get insurance, whether it’s the premium or the co-pay.”

Dr. Nooristani said 4,000 uninsured patients made visits to emergency rooms at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center and French Hospital Medical Center last year alone, adding that 30 percent of the population in San Luis Obispo County are uninsured.

The need for a clinic like this is more than ever, but there’s one thing stopping Dr. Nooristani from opening the doors.

The heating ventilation-air conditioning unit needed to be changed out before an operating license can be issued. It was an unexpected $26,000 cost.

“It’s one of the obstacles we’re currently working and I hope to get that donated to at least open the doors,” said Dr. Nooristani.

Everything in the office has been donated. The hope is the community will be inspired to help one last time.

Once the doors are open, Dr. Nooristani said it will be the first clinic of its kind: with so many services under one roof, offered free of charge, and being 100 percent volunteer run from the doctors to the front desk, aside from two part time positions.