Skip Van Meter, an acupuncturist at Working Class Acupuncture in Portland, Oregon, led me into the treatment area and offered me a choice of recliners set in a series of living room–like groupings. I chose a seat in a softly lit circle where two people were reclined and napping with a fountain splashing in the background. Van Meter asked what ailed me, felt pulses at my wrist and neck, and then inserted a dozen hair-fine needles below my knees and elbows.
This treatment approach, called “community acupuncture” by its founders, is an alternative to standard acupuncture practice. Acupuncture can be effective, especially for chronic problems, but as a soon-to-graduate student of traditional Chinese medicine, I also knew it often requires multiple or frequent treatments. With fees averaging $65 per visit nationwide, who can afford results? Certainly not people who work part time or are retired, or the teachers, secretaries, and laborers I treated at my school clinic.
To correct this disparity, Lisa Rohleder, Skip Van Meter, and Lupine Hudson founded Working Class Acupuncture (WCA): a low-cost, community-supported acupuncture clinic that pays its staff a living wage. They opened the clinic in 2002 and a couple of years ago launched the nonprofit Community Acupuncture Network to spread their idea nationwide.
Acupuncture is inherently low cost and adaptable to any setting. The cost of disposable needles is just a few dollars per treatment. In the United States, however, private treatment rooms and lengthy one-on-one sessions with practitioners increase costs. At WCA, patients are scheduled at 10-minute intervals and are treated in a shared area. Payment is on a $15 to $35 sliding scale. The clinic sees some 400 patients a week at an average rate of $19 per visit.
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. People come for everyday ailments such as backache, asthma, migraine, arthritis, common cold, indigestion, and food or drug cravings. The group setting creates a collective healing energy where friends can be treated together or newcomers can watch a treatment before being needled themselves.
The low fees enable 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 health care system in the United States is seriously flawed,” says Barbara Chapman of the Sebastopol Community Acupuncture clinic in Sebastopol, California. “More than 50 million Americans are uninsured or underinsured. . . . Community acupuncture is an attempt to address this [gap] through a sustainable business model that offers affordable health care to most people in the community while enabling the acupuncturist to make a living.”
Since the Community Acupuncture Network launched, it has sponsored almost a dozen sliding scale workshops that encourage other acupuncturists to adopt the community-supported model. The network’s website (www.communityacupuncturenetwork.org) offers a directory of participating clinics, currently 60 of them in 18 states, as well as clinics that have adopted components of the community acupuncture model.
Pamela O’Malley Chang is a founding partner of Sarana Community Acupuncture in Albany, California (www.saranacommunityacupuncture.com). Excerpted from the “Liberate Your Space” issue of Yes!(Winter 2008). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (4 issues) from 284 Madrona Way NE, Suite 116, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110; www.yesmagazine.org.