by C.L. Frederick
In 1971, a collection of rag-tag, rebellious Kansas City citizens recognized the need to establish a safe haven to meet the health needs for their community and formed the Kansas City Free Health Clinic.
This was a grassroots effort that provided health services to the most vulnerable of Kansas City residents. The clinic and its creators not only worked for the uninsured, but also gave their time, talents and compassion to an LGBTQ community that was desperately underserved and treated with little dignity during that era. They fought for all individuals and went to great lengths to see that all received the best possible care.
Changing the healthcare system 44 years ago was no simple task, but these individuals created, through great challenge and reinvention, a clinic that has become the heart of a community. Today, the Kansas City CARE Clinic, at 3515 Broadway and 6400 Prospect, has become one of the leading health clinics in the country, and its HIV/AIDS services have become renowned nationwide.
The Kansas City CARE Clinic has always been ahead of its time. It isn’t just a free health clinic anymore; it has been accepting insurance since 2014 and serves all in need of care. The clinic specializes in numerous services designed to treat the whole person and not just the illness. It takes a holistic approach that includes general medicine, STI testing and screening, dental, behavioral health, substance abuse and HIV primary care all under one roof.
It would be difficult to talk about the Kansas City CARE Clinic without giving special attention to its work with HIV and AIDS services. In the 1980s the clinic was one of the first places in the area to treat HIV and AIDS patients during a time when gay men were becoming sick and the world had no idea why. HIV and AIDS had not yet been identified as a medical condition. The vilification of these ill men grew to an unparalleled hysteria in the United States, specifically within the Midwest and South. Care was basically nonexistent, and most patients were denied care due to the fear and stigma associated with the virus. In 1986 the clinic was the only HIV testing site in western Missouri and saved innumerable lives in the area by providing testing and preventing further transmission. The clinic made testing accessible which enabled gay men to become aware of their status and in turn reduced the rate of infection in Kansas City. The CARE Clinic today continues to honor the legacy of compassion to all individuals with HIV/AIDS in the Kansas City area that the KC Free Health Clinic so strikingly validated.
More than 22 years ago, the clinic hired its first full-time health care provider. Sally Neville was an RN who had been taking care of HIV/AIDS patients at Trinity Lutheran Hospital, one of the only hospitals that would take care of AIDS patients. Neville has been responsible for growing the HIV practice at the clinic and is known throughout the Ryan White system across the country. She has seen dramatic shifts with the treatment of HIV.
“In the early days, no one wanted to take care of these guys, and we watched so many die. A couple of years ago at the AIDS walk, this man in his 80s came over to me and told me how I had taken care of his son more than 20 years ago. He had tears in his eyes and told me he’d never forget the care we had shown his son,” she said.
“It was an incredibly touching moment because it was a reminder that it was an honor to help these families, because at the time, there was very little help.”
At present, the clinic is the lead Ryan White agency in western Missouri, providing assistance to HIV positive individuals and helping to educate at-risk persons within the community. Not only does the CARE Clinic lead the nation through HIV primary care, but it also has become known for its focus on education. It is the Missouri performance site for the Midwest AIDS Training and Education Center which trains healthcare professionals with the most current and cutting-edge treatment and care options available.
It’s nearly impossible to adequately shed light on the accomplishments and importance of the Kansas City CARE Clinic because it has provided so much in the way of health care for all of Kansas City and continues to do so today. Since day one the clinic has believed that health care was a human right and not just a privilege and it has always used that philosophy as a beacon on behalf of the community. Today we do not have to wonder what our community would have been like if the clinic had never been established.
Kirk Isenhour, the clinic’s vice president of marketing and development, points out that, “If the clinic weren’t here, there are more than 8,000 Kansas Citians that wouldn’t have a health care home. And they are folks just like you and me – small business owners, folks who work retail or in the food service industry – they are challenged with access to insurance.”
One thing is certain: Countless lives have been impacted, the spread of HIV/AIDS has been significantly reduced and an incalculable number of individuals within the area were spared from contracting the virus. It took a small group of concerned and dedicated individuals from the past to recognize the importance of providing health care to the most vulnerable. Their service and perseverance continues to be honored today by the staff, volunteers and patients of the Kansas City CARE Clinic.
“The amazing thing about working here is that there is this amazing spirit in this place that really comes from the people who are here because they WANT to be here – and that really stems from the volunteers and includes the staff,” Isenhour said. “Every day you see the impact to the people who we are serving and they are SO appreciative. I really think it gets back to our original mission written in 1971 that we believe in treating people not just their diseases.”
Hundreds of people associated with the clinic work on the frontline every day to ensure that the clinic is a leader in care and a national model of how a successful clinic should work. They have always believed in seeing the clinic as a way to build a new community and they have in turn assisted the clinic in becoming its heart.