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Acupuncture for All

With increasing numbers of people unable to afford health care, these community practitioners are making acupuncture accessible.

Skip Van Meter helps patients relax as they are treated. Photo by Jonathan House / Portland Tribune
Skip Van Meter helps patients relax as they are treated. Working Class Acupuncture keeps treatments affordable and serves as a business model for other health care clinics.
Photo by Jonathan House / Portland Tribune

Skip Van Meter, lead acupuncturist at Working Class Acupuncture (WCA) in Portland, Oregon, led me into the treatment area and offered me my choice among recliners set in a series of living-room-like groupings. I chose a seat in a circle where two people were reclined and napping in a softly lit area with a fountain splashing in the background. In about five minutes, Van Meter asked what ailed me, felt pulses at my wrist and neck, and inserted a dozen or so hair-fine needles in my legs and arms below the knees and elbows.

This treatment approach, called by its founders “Community Acupuncture,” interested me as an alternative to standard acupuncture practice. As a soon-to-graduate student of traditional Chinese medicine, I knew that acupuncture can be more effective than Western medicine, especially for chronic problems. But it often requires multiple or frequent treatments, and with fees averaging $65 per visit nationwide, who could afford enough treatments to achieve results? Certainly not my friends who work part-time or are retired, or the teachers, secretaries, and laborers I treated at my school clinic.

Painting by Nancy Norman
Painting by Nancy Norman

I loved the holistic 2,000-year-old Chinese medicine, but faced with the choice of opening an expensive standard clinic or finding a low-paying job at a subsidized clinic, I didn't know if I could afford to practice my new profession.

Fortunately for me, in 2002, Lisa Rohleder, Skip Van Meter, and Lupine Hudson, co-founders of Working Class Acupuncture, dreamed of and established a low-cost, community-supported acupuncture clinic that paid its staff a living wage. In Fall 2006, they launched the Community Acupuncture Network (CAN) to spread their ideas nationwide.

 

Imagine acupuncturists being integral to every community, and acupuncture being the medicine everyone uses and values.

 

Patient receiving treatment at Working Class Acupuncture. Photo by Jonathan House / Portland Tribune
Photo by Jonathan House / Portland Tribune

Community Acupuncture's key to affordability is volume and simplicity. Acupuncture is inherently low-cost, simple, and adaptable to any setting while remaining remarkably effective. The cost of disposable needles is a few dollars per treatment.

In the United States, acupuncture fees are inflated by the cost of private treatment rooms and often-lengthy one-on-one sessions with practitioners. At WCA, patients are scheduled at 10-minute intervals and treated in a shared area. WCA sees some 300 patients per week at an average fee of $20 per visit for everyday ailments such as backache, asthma, migraine, arthritis, common cold, indigestion, and food or drug cravings.

Everyone is offered a $15 to $35 sliding-scale fee option. Everyone gets a choice of recliner, a short whispered consultation with an acupuncturist, quick treatment while sitting comfortably and fully clothed, and the opportunity to doze off in a relaxing setting for minutes or hours. The group setting creates a collective healing energy where friends can be treated together or newcomers can watch another treatment before being needled themselves.

Patient receiving treatment at Working Class Acupuncture. Photo by Jonathan House / Portland Tribune
Photo by Jonathan House / Portland Tribune

The low fees allow clients to afford enough treatment to obtain good results. Over time, they come to see acupuncturists as health partners rather than remote experts. Vito, a WCA patient, sees his treatments as “taking myself in for a tune-up. It's managed health care with me in the driver's seat.”

The experience that generates such enthusiastic patients is just as uplifting for the acupuncturists. As Rohleder wrote in the March 2006 Acupuncture Today:

“As years passed and my practice flourished, as I reflected on how all of my problems with earning a living had been solved by focusing on acupuncture's simplicity, I became possessed by a vision of what acupuncture could do for the problems of our health care system as a whole. Imagine what could happen if acupuncture were widely available to everyone in America, regardless of whether they had insurance or not. Imagine the impact of a clinic in every neighborhood: patients getting off expensive pain medication they can't afford, uninsured asthma patients no longer needing to go to the ER, overwhelmed working parents no longer yelling at their kids or drinking to escape from the stress of their lives—because they have an alternative. Imagine acupuncturists being integral to every community, and acupuncture being the medicine everyone uses and values.”

Portland's Working Class Acupuncture. Photo courtesy of Working Class Acupuncture
Portland's Working Class Acupuncture.
Photo courtesy of Working Class Acupuncture

In the year since CAN launched, it has sponsored a half-dozen sliding scale, sold-out workshops to encourage other acupuncturists to adopt the community-supported model. The CAN-website (www.communityacupuncturenetwork.org) offers a directory of Community Acupuncture Clinics—currently 80 of them—and a forum where practitioners can share professional problems, tips, and experiences. Barbara Chapman feels that the Community Acupuncture workshop she attended in February 2007 was “the missing piece of my [Chinese medicine] education.” Chapman got her acupuncture license in March 2007 and, in late May, opened the Sebastopol Community Acupuncture Clinic in Sebastopol, California. She treated seven patients during her first week. Now she works 21 hours a week and treats about 60 patients.

Chapman says: “The health care system in the United States is seriously flawed. More than 50 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured. This has to change. Community Acupuncture is an attempt to address this need through a sustainable business model that offers affordable health care to most people in the community while enabling the acupuncturist to make a living. Sebastopol Community Acupuncture is part of a growing movement in the nationwide acupuncture community.”

Having seen the benefits, both to patients and practioners, I am talking with fellow acupuncturists about opening our own community clinic in 2008.


Pamela O'Malley Chang wrote this article as part of Liberate Your Space, the Winter 2008 issue of YES! Magazine. Pamela is a YES! contributing editor and is a founding partner of Sarana Community Acupuncture in Albany, CA. www.SaranaCommunityAcupuncture.com Photo of Pamela O'Malley Chang
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