At 5:30pm, it’s already dark outside the Seaside Family Health Center. Beneath the fluorescent lights of the front entrance, 20 or so people sit in lines of chairs. Some will be here until 9pm. It’s a standard evening at at the RotaCare Monterey Clinic, which pops up weekly in this Seaside location.
“We’re lucky today,” says Claudia Mendivil, clinic operations manager. Lucky, because tonight they have six doctors volunteering. Some days they make do with as few as four. Finding providers willing to donate their services is a struggle for an organization run almost entirely by volunteers. Mendivil, one of only two paid staff, was hired two weeks ago; the clinic hopes to raise enough money to fund her position longer.
The weekly clinic charges charges no copays, though they do ask for a $10 donation. Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula provides medical tests and X-rays free of charge.
That assistance is needed by the county’s uninsured, which according to a 2017 census survey number over 40,000. Some patients at the clinic do have insurance, but can’t afford to use it. “They’re all hard-working, good citizens in the community, but they can’t afford health care,” Medical Director Greg Thompson says.
One patient, an uninsured day laborer named Sergio, says he’s visited the clinic for over 10 years. “The service here has been excellent,” he says in Spanish. “They’ve helped so much.”
The clinic hasn’t covered all of his medical needs – after developing kidney stones, he had to go on a payment plan to see a private urologist – but they have provided ongoing care for his wife’s high blood pressure.
Over the past few years, RotaCare’s focus has expanded from acute care to include treatment of chronic conditions. In 2011, nurse practitioner Sabah al Marashi started the nonprofit’s diabetes program, which includes medication and nutritional guidance.
The volunteers at RotaCare acknowledge they can’t fix the health care disparities that drive about 25 to 40 patients to their doors every week. “It is frustrating, on behalf of the patient,” Thompson says. A few years ago, one of al Marashi’s patients, a man in his 20s, died after he couldn’t afford insulin. “There are more cases like this,” she says. “These stories are real.”
It’s the people they help that make the struggle worthwhile. “It’s the most rewarding kind of work I’ve done in my medical career,” Thompson says.