Noor Foundation clinics provide free health care - and hope - to Central Coast uninsured

Aug 9, 2017

While the struggle over health care continues in Washington D.C., a San Luis Obispo County doctor follows his dream by providing top quality care - at no cost to the patient.

The Noor Clinics of San Luis Obispo County look like many private medical offices: spacious, well-designed and friendly. The difference? These clinics provide free medical and dental care to anyone who cannot afford to pay.

“Before I started this project I had a dream, or goal, to help outside the United States,” said Dr. Ahmad Nooristani, founder of the Noor Clinics.

Born in Afghanistan and raised in California, he planned on using his medical skills to help those in Africa, or Afghanistan.

When Nooristani moved to San Luis Obispo nine years ago for his first job as a doctor, he was shocked to see that so many local people were without insurance, and using local emergency rooms as their only access to a physician. He did a little digging, to find out what was going on.  

“I was under the impression that it’s a rich county; everybody has tons of money. Of course insurance is not an issue. But behold, it was 29 percent of people here that did not have insurance at that time. I stopped my project internationally and I wanted to do something here locally," Nooristani said.

Nooristani is relatively young and modest, and his passion to help others is clear. He said he was raised to believe that as human beings, we are obligated to take care of others; our family first; then our community, before venturing forth to help those around the world.

He explained that in California, the extremely poor get benefits from the government, but those with part time jobs, or work without benefits are often left out.

The first SLO Noor medical clinic opened in 2011, soon followed by the dental clinic. So far the clinics have had over 12,000 patient visits.

"I remember when we opened and I said my goal is a thousand. Let’s get to that 1,000. I was just looking forward to it," Nooristani said.

Dr. Ron Barbieri runs the free Noor dental clinic. He’s been on board since the beginning.

“Dr. Nooristani can be really, really persuasive. So after we put the office together with him I became the dental clinic director, sort of by default, which is a great position, I love doing this. The guy has such a huge heart. I could see that whatever he put his mind to was going to happen,” Dr. Barbieri said. 

Barbieri sees patients who often have painful dental problems. Many live in this expensive area unemployed, or earning minimum wage.

“And I think that’s the reason that we see so many of the younger people. People that have families with two or three children and are 35 years old and are working at McDonalds,” Barbieri said.

Even for those eligible for government programs, there are gaps. Many people struggle to afford co-payments, or transportation to the doctors’ office. The clinic's patients are sometimes undocumented immigrants - about 40 percent. And about 60 percent are middle-class people who do not feel they can afford to fit health insurance into their tight budgets. 

“We also have the retired people living on just Social Security so that’s a big part of it too,” Barbieri said.

The Noor Foundation is a non-profit organization, and funding is always a challenge. Operating costs hover at around half a million a year. Last year, the Noor clinics had about 3,500 patient visits, and expect that number to go up to 10,000 in a couple of years.

Yet through grants, private donations, and the dedication of volunteers, the clinics have thrived. The Noor Clinics are staffed with over one hundred volunteer doctors, dentists, RNs and office workers. Dr. Nooristani gives a lot of credit to the volunteers.

“For every dollar that we get, 100 dollars of care that we provide, and that number is unbeatable. Because everybody is a volunteer, and the amount of services that we offer because of all these volunteers makes it possible to have that ratio," Nooristani said.

Like most of us, Nooristani is worried about the future of health care in the United States.

“As soon as this whole thing started with the new legislation we will see a huge spike in our visits at the clinic. We need to do more," Nooristani said. “Our work is cut out for us...That’ll be the next challenge for us."

The Noor clinics could expanded hours, find more providers - but only if the foundation meets its funding goals. So Dr. Nooristani looks to do more in his community, as he waits to see what Congress does next.