Community Health Care
50 Years of Service in Pierce County!
Help Us Celebrate!
Community Health Care history dates back to 1969. We are celebrating by honoring HEALTH HEROES in our community. A healthy community is more than just access to clinical care. A healthy community encompasses all facets of what makes a community thrive. To celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Community Health Care is pleased to announce our Health Heroes program.
Health Heroes will be selected and honored throughout the year.
A Health Heroes Celebration Event will be held on
at the Hotel Murano/Bicentennial Pavilion
5:00 Social Hour begins
6:00 Program begins
We would love you to join us in our 2020 Health Heroes celebration by being a sponsor, hosting a table, or bringing a friend!
Download the program from our first Health Heroes celebration!
In 2019, Community Health Care will serve nearly 47,000 patients, providing comprehensive primary Medical, Dental, Pharmacy and Behavioral Health Services through a clinic system that includes five medical and four dental clinics, as well as several thriving new residency programs. Fifty years ago, in 1969, the organization began quite humbly with no budget; simply a part-time clinic site staffed entirely by volunteers. The story of the organization’s origins, development and growth over the past half-century is an inspiring one, of which the Tacoma-Pierce County community can be proud.
In the late 1960s, local physicians and concerned citizens recognized the need for access to quality health care for Pierce County’s low-income and under-insured residents. The path ahead was not always obvious or easy, and Community Health Care has survived setbacks along the way. Through the hard work, dedication, and passion of medical professionals, community leaders, and volunteers, the organization continues to thrive in service of its mission: to provide the highest quality health care with compassionate and accessible service for all.
Dr. George Tanbara (1922-2017) played a central role in the establishment of the first volunteer clinics from which the Community Health Care network would develop. Dr. Tanbara opened his medical practice in Tacoma in the early 1950s and was known in Tacoma as a generous and caring physician, as well as one of the few who would treat African American children. In addition to his private practice, Dr. Tanbara worked with both Pierce County Hospital and Puget Sound Hospital. When it became clear that the latter was going to close in the late 1960s due to budget shortfalls, Dr. Tanbara recognized that a significant number of Tacoma residents from low-income, uninsured, and minority communities would need other sources of medical care.
Meanwhile, in 1969, Dr. Eugene Wiegman, who had recently been hired as President of Pacific Lutheran University, was asked by the community to chair the newly-formed Tacoma Urban Coalition. The Tacoma chapter was part of the National Urban Coalition, an organization intended to bring together “movers and shakers” to solve problems in urban areas around the country. In a video commemorating 40 years of Community Health Care’s existence, Dr. Wiegman recalled Dr. Tanbara saying to him at a Coalition meeting, “I have an idea for you.”
That idea was a health clinic to serve Tacoma’s Eastside. Joining the effort with Tanbara and Wiegman were members of Tacoma’s African American community. James Walton, who had just been hired as Executive Director of the Tacoma Urban Coalition, would quickly identify health care as a primary area of focus for the Coalition’s efforts. Lyle Quasim, a representative of the Black Collective, a leadership organization for issues facing the African American community in Tacoma, would help to secure State resources to support the clinics, from his position in the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Dr. Tanbara also worked with Mel Jackson, who had moved into the position of director of the Human Development Department, after working as assistant city manager for the City of Tacoma.
With the support of the Urban Coalition in hand, Dr. Tanbara rallied 50 Pierce County Medical Society physicians and community leaders to a meeting in the Tacoma Community House gymnasium, where he shared his idea for a clinic to be located at Salishan, staffed entirely by volunteers. The specific question Tanbara asked of the doctors was whether they would see the Salishan clinic patients for free. Every doctor in attendance said yes, and the first volunteer-operated clinic was born.
The clinic operated first out of Lister Elementary School (as seen on the front cover), and later moved into a Quonset hut in Salishan. Each Wednesday evening, Dr. Tanbara, supported by volunteers as well as his wife Kimi and their oldest children, would manage the clinic from 6:00pm until the last patient was seen, serving any adult or child who needed medical services.
Puget Sound Hospital provided peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the volunteers, who conducted examinations on school desks and tables. Good Samaritan Hospital provided lab services, and Dr. Dick Driscoll, a pharmacist at Tacoma General Hospital, worked with pharmaceutical representatives to receive medication samples for distribution at the clinic.
In 1971, the Tacoma Urban Coalition, in continued support of the fledgling clinic’s efforts, published the results of a study confirming that Tacoma lacked sufficient accessibility to health care, especially in the Eastside, South End, and Hilltop neighborhoods. The study’s preface concludes with the following statement:
“The Urban Coalition has undertaken the study with the hope that the information gathered will be of assistance to those individuals who share our concern that solutions must be found to make quality health care a reality for everyone in the Tacoma area regardless of socio-economic standing.”
A second clinic opened in 1974 in the basement of the School of Nursing at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, reaching another population pinpointed by the Urban Coalition study. As with the Salishan clinic, all services were provided by volunteers and supported by in-kind donations from local hospitals.
Although Tacoma’s Urban Coalition hired a staff member, Aaron Miller, in 1974 to manage the two clinics, and the Metropolitan Development Council contributed outreach workers in 1976. The 1970s were an uncertain time for the future of the clinics. Federal Model Cities funding provided modest financial support for the clinics’ operation, but that program came to an end in 1974. With no permanent source of funding, or any paid medical staff, it would be difficult to ensure the continued operation of the clinics, much less their expansion.
What did not change over this decade, however, was the commitment of doctors and community leaders to the continued operation of the clinics. The Pierce County Medical Society included reports on the number of patients served by the clinics in their monthly Bulletin, and a number of the society’s leadership – including Dr. Tanbara but also Dr. George Race and Dr. Wayne Zimmerman – wrote regularly in the Bulletin about the need to both support the existing clinics and foster the growth of a sustainable infrastructure for serving low-income patients.
In 1980, the Urban Health Initiative (UHI), a federal funding source, would spur new growth for the fledgling clinic network. Tom Hilyard, Program Development Specialist in Tacoma’s Human Development Department and a member of the Pierce County Health Council, was instrumental in writing the first UHI grant request. When the proposal became stalled in Washington, D.C., Norm Dicks, the long-serving 6th District Congressman, ushered it through what was then called the Health, Education & Welfare Committee.
Under the terms of the UHI grant, which was issued in January 1980, three clinics – Eastside, Hilltop, and a new clinic in Lakewood – would become part of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and be fully operational by June. A new clinic in Sumner would follow soon after, opening in April 1981.
Florence Reeves, a Public Health nurse with the Health Department, put in her application, alongside more than 100 others, to lead this newly-structured clinic system. Reeves was selected and would go on to manage the organization for nearly 15 years, hiring the first paid medical staff, and overseeing a great deal of change and growth. Described by those who worked with her as “a dynamo”, “tough”, and a “leader among leaders”, she was involved in both the day-to-day operation of the clinics and maintaining an effective relationship with Congressman Dicks and other leaders, calling upon them when necessary for support.
1981 marked a significant moment for the clinic network, which had relied exclusively on volunteer medical staff for more than a decade: the first two doctors, Dr. Charles Weatherby and Dr. Doug Jeffries, were hired. Each physician took responsibility for two of the four clinics, and also started an OB program, delivering as many as 350 babies per year.
Also in 1981, Dr. George Tanbara served a term as President of the Pierce County Medical Society. Among his many other responsibilities that year, Tanbara worked to build an effective relationship between the Society and the newly-configured clinics by establishing a Quality Assurance Committee which would ensure that members of the Society were involved in oversight of the care being delivered at the clinics.
In his eloquent columns in each issue of that year’s Society Bulletin, Tanbara taught his colleagues the meaning of certain Japanese words as a means for inspiring involvement. Here is just one example: “Only by each and every one of us striving our utmost – iishokenmei – can we attain our individual and mutual goals for our patients, city, county, state and nation.”
Florence Reeves would later stress, in a 1991 interview, the importance of Dr. Tanbara’s role during this phase of the clinics’ development: “Under his presidency we resolved issues; we set up relationships so that the medical society was not at odds with the clinics and that was a tremendous step to our improvement in getting resources and growing in the community.”
In 1982, Dr. Tom Heller, a professor with the University of Washington School of Medicine, took on the role of medical director, supervising the staff doctors, whose numbers would grow to four – one for each clinic – by 1984. The early 1980s were clearly a time of substantial and significant growth and change for the clinics.
But another fundamental change was coming to the organization: separation from the Health Department and creation of an independent non-profit status which would facilitate access to a more sustainable source of federal funding.
As of January 1st, the 4 clinics left the auspices of the Health Department to become its own entity.
In August of 1986, the four clinics incorporated as “Community Health Care Delivery System” (CHCDS). This new, independent non-profit status enabled the organization to apply for Community Health Center funding through the federal Chapter 330 Public Health Services Act. This allowed for more stable budgets, eventual purchase of the organization’s first building, and meant that the organization could serve Medicaid-eligible patients.
1986 was a pivotal year in many ways. During that year, CHCDS also started the Comprehensive Perinatal Care Service. Two midwives were hired to augment the two doctors who delivered babies. This program promoted care for women before, during and after having given birth, enabling CHCDS to retain a team of outreach workers when funding for outreach was being withdrawn all over the country. Florence put together the grant money allowing the hire of Tacoma’s first perinatologist. Before that, the only perinatologist in the region practiced at UW in Seattle.
Florence Reeves maintained her leadership role with the organization through this transition. The original mission statement for Community Health Care Delivery System was: “To maintain a system of comprehensive health care for all, which ensures access for the medically and dentally underserved populations of Pierce County.”
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw steady growth and expansion for Community Health Care Delivery System. Dental care was added, first with a single chair located at Tacoma Rescue Mission, later in donated space in the office of local dentist Dr. Sal Giusti at 38th and Pacific, and finally with the establishment in 1989 of the first official Community Health Care Delivery System dental clinic, co-located with medical services in the Hilltop Clinic.
In 1990, a Health Care for the Homeless Program opened under a sub-contract with Metropolitan Development Council, and Community Health Care Delivery System received federal support for HIV/AIDS care through Florence Reeves lobbying for permission to use grant money left over from other grants. CHCDS became a model on which the Ryan White Title III HIV Early Intervention Program was based. A new Children’s Clinic was dedicated in the Hilltop neighborhood in August of 1991, with Representative Norm Dicks, continuing his faithful support for the clinics, in attendance.
A $25,000 grant from the Cheney Foundation enabled renovation of the Eastside Clinic in 1992, the same year that Community Health Care Delivery System added a “Foot Care for Seniors” program. In September of 1993, a new clinic opened in Tillicum.
By 1994, Community Health Care Delivery System managed an annual budget of nearly $4 million and served nearly 15,000 patients annually in five clinics around the South Sound. As a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) services were available to all. Uninsured patients were charged on a sliding fee schedule base on their income and family size. Also in that year Florence Reeves worked with the CEO’s of the 17 other Health Centers in Washington State to found the Community Health Plan of Washington. She became a charter member of the Board of Directors and Community Health Care Delivery System became a Charter Member of the new insurance plan, designed to serve the needs of low-income community members’ state wide who qualified for Medicaid or the Basic Health Plan. This new insurance plan, controlled by Community Health Care Delivery System and its partner FQHC’s across the state, significantly improved Community Health Care Delivery System’s financial stability and the ability to expand.
In 1995, David Flentge was hired as the new CEO. Flentge found that all but one of the organization’s original founders were still involved, and, understanding the need to draw upon that history and foundational vision, reached out to them to earn support for his plans.
According to Community Health Care Delivery System’s annual report from 1995, the organization was able to serve 11,297 patients even in this year of transition. During 1996, seven new doctors were hired and increased the total number of medical providers.
Flentge, along with the board, started preparations for further growth. At the time, the organization was only serving about 10% of the eligible population in the area. In 1997, the organization changed its name to Community Health Care (CHC) and revised its mission statement: “To provide the highest quality health care with compassionate and accessible service for all.”
In 1997, the organization purchased and renovated a building to house a new Children’s Dental Clinic and Downtown (formerly Family) Medical Clinic. The Adult Dental clinic retained its existing space and expanded. In 1998, the Eastside Clinic was expanded and renovated, and in 1999, new administrative offices were opened, and new medical staff were also hired for the first time since the mid-1990s.
As Community Health Care entered the 2000s, growth and expansion continued, and the organization also responded to changes in the area’s population: by 2000, Community Health Care employed 11 bilingual medical and dental providers and 35 bilingual support staff. Between 2000 and 2006, Community Health Care celebrated the opening of new clinics in Parkland, McKinley (later moved and renamed Soundview), Spanaway, several new pharmacy and dental sites. The Lakewood Clinic was relocated and expanded and two years later the facility was purchased. This new health center included dental and pharmacy for the first time in Lakewood.
In 2009, 40 years after the creation of the first clinic, Dr. Tanbara was honored with the opening of the new Kimi & George Tanbara, MD Health Center at Salishan. Staff from the Women’s Health Clinic, Family Dental Clinic, Children’s Dental Clinic, Soundview Clinic, Sumner Clinic and the Eastside Clinic were combined to provide care in this new, state-of-the-art facility.
In the past decade, while continuing to increase the number of patients served, Community Health Care has embarked on a new venture: residency programs. One of the impacts of the Affordable Care Act, aside from bringing more eligible patients into the clinics for care, was to establish “Teaching Health Centers”, allowing Federally Qualified Health Centers such as Community Health Care to host residency programs. Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jeff Smith immediately saw the value of adding such programs to Community Health Care, especially as a tool for recruiting new medical staff. According to Dr. Smith, the Community Health Care board should be credited for approving the new venture “only after the benefit to patients, not just the benefit to the organization, was made clear.”
In 2012, the first residency program – for nurse practitioners – was launched by Desirée White, ARNP. The program is currently managed by Kimberly Sales, ARNP, who has a long history with the organization. Tasked with launching the Tillicum Clinic in 1993, she describes herself as now being on her “second tour of duty” with Community Health Care, after Dr. Tanbara convinced her – during a chance meeting at Tacoma Mall – to return after having left for another job. “When Dr. Tanbara talks, people listen,” she explains, thankful for the opportunity to continue serving his original vision of “putting the patient first.”
2013 brought the grand opening of the Hilltop Regional Health Center, which now serves as home base to Community Health Care’s several residency programs: the Dental Residency Program, launched in 2013; the Family Medicine Residency Program, started in 2014; the Pharmacy Residency Program, which commenced in 2018, along with the ARNP residency program.
In 2019, Community Health Care started The Leadership Academy, a yearlong leadership training program for internal personnel in supervisory positions.
Each of these residency programs has created more access for patients, as well as providing training for new health care professionals to serve in community health settings, whether here or elsewhere in the country. They ensure that all patients – regardless of the ability to pay – have access to the best quality health care.
In 2015 Behavioral Health Services and Substance Abuse Services were started. In 2019 the Bethel School Based Health Center opened to serve students at Shining Mountain Elementary, Bethel Middle School and Bethel High School. Future plans include additional School Based Health Centers and the development of care focused on foster children as well as adding integrated Behavioral Health Services.
The organization continues to serve the original purpose set out by its founders.
Dr. Tanbara believed that all people, regardless of income or background, deserve quality health care, and his commitment to this belief continues to inspire those who worked with him. His mantra, “Put the patient first”, continues to guide the staff at Community Health Care. And those who joined him in creating his vision of the clinics, under the auspices of the Tacoma Urban Coalition, knew that low-income members of the community struggled to find that quality care. In the words of Dr. Charles Weatherby, “health care is an equalizer, like education.”