There is a saying in the world of free clinics. “If you’ve seen one free clinic, you’ve seen ONE free clinic.” Free clinics range from tiny, twice a month, drop-in events in shared space to organizations that look like federally qualified health centers. What they have in common is that they do not charge for their services and they depend on the dedication and commitment of volunteers from the community – healthcare providers, social workers, retirees, businesspeople, students – every contribution is important.

Free clinics, born of necessity, quickly confront issues of service quality; record keeping, volunteer recruitment, training and retention, board development and, of course, funding. To address these issues, individuals working in and with free clinics looked for informal relationships that focused on concerns shared among Washington clinics. From these relationships grew the idea for a more formal networking structure. 

Under the umbrella of the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington, and with the inspired leadership of its executive director, Marcia Howery, people active in free clinics met together in Pasco in 2006. From that meeting came the idea and seed money to collaborate on a newsletter and an annual networking conference. The newsletter, assisted with support from the Washington State Department of Health, produced a survey of clinics that demonstrated a value of nearly $2 million in uncompensated medical and dental care. 

At the following conference, individuals representing 25 of the state’s free clinics decided to create a statewide association that would support networking, quality improvement and stability. In 2008, working with funds from its 2007 conference and a grant from the Washington State Department of Health, these clinics formed the Washington Free Clinic Association (WFCA). WFCA registered as a nonprofit organization, with an elected board of trustees reflective of the areas served throughout the state. 

The WFCA was initiated by leaders within the free clinic community with the primary goal of developing a permanent structure that would provide support services, including the collection and dissemination of forms, best practices, a discussion forum and other networking opportunities. One of its first actions was to create the Marcia Howery Award, to recognize in others the inspiration and drive that Marcia Howery embodied. Between 2008 and 2012, the WFCA operated with a part time director and produced an annual conference and newsletter.

In 2012, the WFCA board decided to expand membership of the organization to include charitable care organizations – nonprofit organizations that provide, coordinate or support healthcare access for underserved communities. With this broader community of members, the name was changed to Washington Healthcare Access Alliance (WHAA).

In 2017, WHAA began administration of the mostly state-funded Volunteer and Retired Providers Program, through which licensed healthcare volunteers in Washington receive malpractice coverage, and volunteers whose license is only used for unpaid work can renew the license at no cost. This program is the backbone the free clinic staffing model in Washington.

The culture of free clinics, and the founding principle of WHAA, is people helping people. This extends beyond patient care to assistance and collaboration between clinics, organizations and communities toward stronger healthcare safety net. WHAA serves as a mechanism for these connections through education, advocacy and professional networking.