POULSBO — A food bank doubled as a doctor’s office Wednesday as North Kitsap Fishline hosted the first of what will become a monthly free clinic.
Clients had their blood pressure taken by a nurse in a lobby outside the Fishline food market, while others talked with doctors in private consultation rooms. A Kitsap Public Health District nurse offered flu shots to anyone who walked through the door.
Fishline Executive Director Mary Nader said a free clinic fits naturally with the food bank’s expanding mission. Medical care represents a huge expense for families struggling to make ends meet.
“It’s a big part of the reason why our clients face economic instability,” Nader said.
Offering free primary care in a familiar setting can help address the need, she said.
“This is how we’re going to create long-term change,” Nader said. “Getting at the root of the problem.”
Fishline is working with the nonprofit West Sound Free Clinic to provide no-cost care at its campus off Viking Avenue on the first Wednesday of each month. Fishline is the fourth location for the free clinic, and the first outside Bremerton. The mobile clinic served 307 patients in the past year.
West Sound Free Clinic co-director and nurse Carrie Bivens said she hasn’t seen the need for free care diminish in the county, even since the rollout of the Affordable Care Act extended health insurance to more residents. More than 20,000 people in Kitsap have obtained coverage through Washington’s health exchange, either by purchasing qualified health plans or signing up for the state’s expanded Medicaid program.
But there still is a portion of the county’s population that isn’t insured, including about 30 percent of Fishline clients. Bivens said some people who have coverage can’t afford the out-of-pocket fees required when they use their plans.
“They flat out can’t afford insurance even if they have it,” Bivens said.
For those residents, West Sound Free Clinic is one of the few options for receiving primary care locally. Bivens said many of the patients the program helps are homeless. A significant number are immigrants.
Founded in 2012, the clinic is staffed by a small team of volunteer doctors and nurse practitioners. The providers offer health screenings and treat a wide range of common maladies, like colds, infections, aches and pains. The clinic works with other organizations to provide free medications, lab tests, medical imaging and specialty care as needed.
Bivens said she finds the volunteer work particularly rewarding. Since the services are free, there’s no insurance paperwork to worry about. Providers take their time getting to know patients.
“You get to practice medicine in its purest form,” Bivens said. “This is really why we all got into this in the first place.”
Good as that might sound, recruiting providers remains the free clinic’s biggest challenge. Host organizations like Fishline have been eager to partner with the clinic, but Medical Director Dr. Patrick Casy said the group can’t expand into more areas of the county unless additional physicians and nurse practitioners volunteer.
“If we could find more providers, we could open more clinics,” he said.
FREE CLINICWest Sound Free Clinic provides no-cost care on four days each month:
4-7 p.m. first Wednesday each month at North Kitsap Fishline, 787 NW Liberty Lane, Poulsbo.
5-7 p.m. second Monday each month at St. Vincent de Paul, 1117 N. Callow Ave., Bremerton.
1-4 p.m. fourth Tuesday each month at YWCA, 905 Pacific Ave., Bremerton.
1-4 p.m. fourth Thursday each month at St. Vincent de Paul, 1117 N. Callow Ave., Bremerton.
For information, call 206-659-5631.
This article was originally posted in the Kitsap Sun, November 4, 2015.