The Free Clinic Movement

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National Free Clinic Council (NFCC)

The Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic opened in June 1967. By the end of the year 5 more had opened, with 28 opening in 1968. By 1970, over 75 clinics appeared in the U.S. and Canada. California was home to about a third of them.

These organizations shared grass roots origins and barebones facilities. Their equipment and supplies were hand-me-downs, sometimes “donated” by local hospitals and medical offices. Medications came from drug reps’ samples. Staff typically dressed like the patients. A sense of financial crisis typically prevailed.

Some of the clinics were opened by community members truly concerned with the lack of care due to some type of crisis. Others were opened by organizations looking out for the welfare of their members. Some were opened by churches manifesting their faith as action.

In 1968, individuals from the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic and the Berkeley Free Clinic met to discuss a national organization to collect and disseminate Information, to organize communities, and to provided educational material. The group organized a January 1970 conference, whose proceedings were published as The Free Clinic: A Community Approach to Health Care and Drug Abuse.

A second conference was held in 1972 in Washington DC. There was little agreement among the 1000 or so attendees on issues ranging from whether free clinics should be agents for social change or providers of medical care; whether Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and women were adequately represented as speakers; whether a Chinese “barefoot doctor” model better served the free clinics than the NFCC’s hope of integrating the free clinics into the existing health care system.

Later, smaller conferences were held; however, the organization lost the support of too many clinics to survive and dissolved in 1976.

National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics

Founded in 2001 under the name of the National Association of Free Clinics, the group changed its name in 2011 to incorporate those organizations providing care with a low-cost sliding scale fee model. With a membership of about 1200 clinics, NAFCC has conducted several one-day free clinics across the country.


The Free Clinic: A Community Approach to Health Care and Drug Abuse. David E. Smith, David J. Bentel and Jerome S. Schwartz. Beloit WI: STASH Press, 1971.

The Free Clinic Movement in America. David J. Fletcher. M.S. Thesis in Public Health, University of California Berkeley. August 1982.