In 1971, the People’s Free Clinic opened in a tiny storefront in Burlington’s Old North End. Announcing “a new kind of health care”, the People’s Free Clinic founders envisioned a mission that would make a resonating statement: every person - regardless of age, race, class, or gender - deserves good medical care despite their ability to pay.
At the onset, the clinic was staffed entirely by trained volunteers who provided health information and treatment for minor wounds and sick visits. As the clinic progressed, more Burlington residents, including two physicians, donated their time to the health center and by the end of the following year, 50 people per week were being treated at the clinic. Reflecting the clinic’s strengthening commitment to grow to meet the more comprehensive health care needs of Burlington residents, a name change was in order. The Community Health Center of Burlington (CHCB) was born.
Even with an entirely volunteer staff, CHCB needed help funding their small budget. The local hospital, then MCHV, began to develop a successful partnership with CHCB. Recognizing its role as a critical access point for cost effective primary care, the hospital provided funding for paid staff and admitting privileges for CHCB physicians. This strong tie and community building relationship endures to this day with Fletcher Allen Health Care.
In order to provide first-rate care to more patients, CHCB was officially awarded the federal status of a Health Care for the Homeless grantee in 1989 and remains the only organization in Vermont with this designation. These federal funds ensure access to health and human services for Vermont adults and children experiencing homelessness and established CHCB’s reputation as a medical expert in care for special populations.
CHCB’s second decade was highlighted by our designation as Vermont’s second Federally Qualified Health Center. With this support came the addition of services such as social work, a prescription assistance program, an obstetrical and prenatal program, the region’s first paid professional interpreter staff, and a new sliding-scale payment plan. The ongoing federal funding allowed for a financially sustainable model and unprecedented growth. The success of this model was demonstrated with the outpouring of community support in 2001 that enabled CHCB to create its 10,000 square foot flagship main facility on Riverside Avenue.
CHCB’s third decade of service brought new access to services for Vermonters. CHCB opened the Pearl Street Clinic, Vermont’s only medical clinic designed for homeless and at-risk youth. Our Safe Harbor Clinic, serving homeless adults and families, expanded to a new two exam room facility, offering primary and preventive health care, dental care, mental health and substance abuse counseling and Housing First, a supportive housing program for homeless patients with chronic medical conditions.
CHCB’s latest expansion resulted in a state-of-the-art dental facility at our main facility. This program now houses Vermont’s first and only dental residency program and quickly achieved status as Vermont’s largest safety net dental practice. By 2009, the dental program served over 4,000 patients, including 400 low-income children at our school based dental clinic.
Today the Community Health Centers of Burlington serve over 13,000 patients and provides 74,000 patient visits per year: over 1,300 of these patients are homeless, 22% uninsured, and 74% low-income. While CHCB may look very different than the original People’s Free Clinic, the famous bedside manner, compassion, and respect that defined us then is still alive and thriving in today’s Community Health Centers of Burlington. Together with our community, we look forward to many more decades of careful stewardship of our remarkable mission.
With thanks to Leah Jones, our extraordinary History Volunteer.
For the complete history of CHCB, click here.