The original concept of the Pocatello Free Clinic (PFC) started as the brain child of Dr. Jim Martin, a local psychiatrist. He and a small group of like-minded advocates were concerned that a number of people in the community were slipping through the cracks in regard to their health care and lacked basic medical services. Dr. Jim had heard of the free clinics that had recently started in the Bay Area of California, most notably those in the Haight Ashbury District. These clinics were free-standing, non-profit, and the care and medications were given without charge. Using this model, a board of directors was formed, which included Perry Swisher, Mel Morgan, Jerry Harris, Idaho Purce, Sister M. Martina Wolfe, Dr. Jan Anderson, and other public spirited local citizens. The Constitution and By-Laws were set up by Attorney Vern E. Herzog Jr. The original clinic was located at 145 So Second Ave, in the back rooms of a building used for community services.
The PFC officially opened its doors on April 1st, 1971. A nurse was selected to run the clinic, assisted by volunteers from the community. Early on, volunteer students and teachers from the ISU School of Pharmacy solicited donation of samples from community physicians, started the difficult task of organizing medicines, and ensuring that they had not passed their expiration date. Soon after opening, Lela Liggins RN joined the Board of Directors, and began to work with them to develop a network of health care volunteers to work at the clinic, raise community awareness, and plan fund raising efforts for the clinic. Her fried chicken dinner/fund-raisers became famous over the years.
The services of the free clinic were originally targeted at three groups
- The indigent and uninsured
- Migrant workers and their families
- Veterans of the Vietnam War
In addition to basic primary medical care, an effort was made to provide legal aid and basic counseling services. Several medical and surgical specialists volunteered to see selected patients in their offices on referral on an as-needed basis. Local hospitals offered low cost X-Rays and lab work. The clinic gained widespread community support, served increasing numbers of people, and gradually outgrew its initial location. It was temporarily moved to the Human Development Center while the Board actively searched for a new, suitable location.
The Old Alameda Fire station, located at 429 Washington Avenue, was originally built in the 1920’s. Horse-drawn carriages used to emerge from the lower level in response to fires in the Alameda district. The horse-drawn vehicles were soon replaced with fire trucks, but their tops needed to be cut off in order to fit inside the lower level. The firemen were housed in the upper part of the building, and would slide down to the lower level on brass poles when the fire bell rang. When Alameda merged with the city of Pocatello in 1962 there was no further need for the station. The building was used for a time as a training center for firemen and then occupied by the Potelco Credit Union until it outgrew the building in the 80’s.
The Free Clinic Board found out that the building was vacant and it seemed to be an ideal location and size for the clinic. Lela Liggins went before the Pocatello City Council and petitioned the City to enable their use of the building for the PFC. The city agreed after some adept persuasion to lease the building to the Clinic for $1 annually. After extensive remodeling and refurbishing the now expanding facility was ready to serve patients. Although service to migrants had been taken over by other agencies, and counseling and legal aid were phased out, in 2001 the Ron Timpson Dental Clinic was added, providing this important service for those in-need in the community. Just recently the dental clinic has been updated with donated equipment from the Portneuf Health Care Foundation.
I have recently had the opportunity to return to participation in the PFC after an absence of nearly 20 years. I have observed some rather remarkable changes that have occurred in the interval and also observed that some things have remained the same.
Unchanged and continuing has been the same model of free medical care (and now free dental care) to those in need that was present at the clinic’s beginning in 1971. Also present is the same spirit of volunteerism and the same high level of community support that jump-started the first effort. The same dedicated and organized distribution of free medicines under the direction of volunteers from the School of Pharmacy is present. In its 40+ year history the Free Clinic has never accepted any federal funds. Its financial support continues to come from the Pocatello community; exemplified by a recent $25,000 donation from the Pocatello Medical Center. It also helps the clinic significantly that the rent from the City of Pocatello remains at $1 per year! The clinic keeps an up-to-date look, remarkable for a building that is nearly 100 years old. Dedicated volunteers still provide many hours of excellent service each year. The clinic has been in continuous operation for 42 years now.
What has changed? In its beginnings, most of the patients using the clinic had acute infectious illness. Now the main conditions seen at the clinic are chronic non-communicable conditions such as diabetes, hypertension and other cardiac problems, back and orthopedic problems and mental health issues. Many of these conditions require a greater degree of continuity. That need will be met by the recent hiring of a family physician assistant who will be available on a regular basis. A very capable executive director, Kristina Pasquella, also provides continuity, overseeing the longer-term needs of the clinic, while working closely with the Board of Directors. Student managers manage the day-to-day medical and dental services, which give them an excellent clinical experience, and help provide patient care. The current Board of Directors is exceptionally capable and dedicated having a broad range of experience and expertise.
In my opinion, the Pocatello Free Clinic has a proud history of long and continuous service to the community of Pocatello. It is well poised to meet the challenges of present and future changes in the health care needs of the community and to preserve its traditions of free health care to those who need it.
~ Dr. Roger Boe