The Buddhist Tzu-Chi Free Clinic in Alhambra has negligible billing costs. That's because all of its medical services, from physicals to acupuncture, are free.
The clinic, which opened in December and was born of a Buddhist charitable foundation with roots in Taiwan, offers physicals, dental and eye checkups, acupuncture, pregnancy tests, screenings, counseling and other primary care needs.
Staffed by volunteers, the clinic will treat only people who cannot afford insurance or health fees, and who make less than $10,000 a year. So far, it has treated more than 200 patients.
Although most of the volunteers and patients are Asian, clinic volunteers emphasize that all patients who fit the financial profile are welcome.
"There is no discrimination--whoever comes to our door (will find) it's open," said office manager Melody Wang, adding that the clinic is searching for more Spanish-speaking volunteers.
Still, the clinic's Buddhist roots are very visible. One of its 26 rooms is a small temple with a statue of Buddha and incense candles for patients who want to meditate.
The waiting room magazine rack is full of newsletters, articles and pamphlets about Master Jeng Yen, who founded the 3-million-member Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu-Chi Foundation in Taiwan. The foundation, a nonprofit group, established its Monrovia office in 1988, and the Alhambra clinic project is similar to the Taiwanese foundation's sponsoring of a hospital and medical college in Taiwan.
The idea for the clinic followed a visit by local doctors and social worker Emily Teng last winter to Costa Mesa to deliver blankets and food for a charitable group. They took a photo of themselves, and when businessman Stephen Huang, chairman of the Monrovia chapter of the Tzu-Chi Foundation, saw it, he asked about the clinic for the poor that was visible in the background, Teng said.
That led to several visits to clinics around Southern California, and weekly meetings throughout 1993. Huang, who owned a vacant cultural center on 1000 Garfield Ave., decided to turn the 4,529-square-foot building into a free clinic for Alhambra and surrounding areas.
Construction, which cost $230,000, took about 10 months. Participating doctors donated equipment, and non-medical volunteers donated software for records and other equipment.
The foundation hopes to get corporate and grant funding for some of the anticipated $500,000 annual operating budget, Teng said.
More than 70 physicians, 20 dentists, 40 nurses and 200 non-medical workers contributed work shifts at the clinic.
Funded by private donors--mainly members of the foundation--and the Chinese community, the clinic passed state and city inspection tests in October and began taking appointments in November.
Mario Carrillo was among the first patients. He had lost all of his belongings, including his eyeglasses and dentures, when his apartment in downtown Los Angeles burned in November.
The 35-year-old shoe salesman was referred by a social worker to the clinic, where he was fitted for new glasses to correct his astigmatism, and new dentures. Everything was free.
"The last things I thought of were my glasses and dentures, but they were the first things I got back," he said. "It's a big, big help."
"We have a great need for organizations like this," said Alan Chen, a representative of Assemblywoman Hilda Solis of the 57th District, which includes Alhambra. "When we get constituents calling for help and access to health care, we can make referrals."
"We have the capacity for 2 1/2 times more patients," said Dr. Chin-Lon Lin, medical director and one of the clinic's founders. "We've been getting mostly Asian patients . . . but we don't want it to be limited to only (Asians)."
Many of the non-medical volunteers learned of the clinic through spots on Chinese TV stations and announcements in Buddhist newsletters. Paul Wang, a student, learned of the volunteer opportunity through his mother, who is Buddhist.
"She urged me to do it even though I'm Christian," he said. "She said not to look at it from the point of view of religion but from the point of view of helping people."
The founders considered a pay-as-you-can program, but decided against it, Lin said. "We didn't want the area hospitals (with sliding-scale fees) to feel we were competing. . . . This way, we can actually involve the area hospitals."
Participating medical centers and private physicians receive patients referred to them by the clinic after a free checkup and diagnosis of specific medical needs, office manager Melody Wang said. Special, major medical needs usually mean the patient is sent to a county hospital, but some patients in the past month received free surgery or prompt treatment at medical centers because of the connection to the clinic, she said.
Northridge Hospital Medical Center, Garfield Medical Center and Alhambra Hospital allow the volunteer doctors from the clinic to use their facilities for needed surgery, said Wang, adding that the San Gabriel Medical Center is completing an agreement to receive patients sent there by the clinic.
Potential patients are screened to make sure they are eligible and are supposed to bring records, such as tax returns, to substantiate their low income. The clinic had to turn away about 30 unqualified people in November, Wang said.
But an undocumented immigrant or someone who claims to have no records would be treated on a good-faith basis.
"Ten percent will take advantage of the services," Lin said. "But 90% will really need it."