05 Aug Origin Stories: Wallace
By Katrina Ratzlaff, Director of Community Engagement, Wallace
Over 36 years ago, a physician named James Reuler persuaded a handful of other doctors to join him in making medical visits to uninsured homeless and low-income residents of Downtown Portland. Dr. Reuler originally named this fledgling organization The Wallace Medical Concern in memory of his patient Edwin B. Wallace, whose bequest helped to fund the group’s early expenses.
Mr. Wallace was a maker of hand-crafted fishing rods. In his honor, Dr. Reuler carried his medical supplies to patient visits in a fishing tackle box. Together he and a growing team of volunteer medical professionals worked hard to meet the most urgent needs of vulnerable women and men who had no other access to health care.
As the years passed, more and more people with great need started calling East Multnomah County home. Wallace moved with them, opening an urgent care clinic in Gresham and bringing a mobile medical clinic to numerous locations. We focused special attention on growing numbers of Latinx individuals and families, including agricultural workers at area farms.
In 2011, we began to offer our patients ongoing primary care with a regular family care provider—and in 2012 we became a Federally Qualified Health Center. Today we are a full-service medical “home base” for individuals and families, with multi-cultural staff who partner fully with patients to improve their health. Our integrated, whole person approach unites medical, dental, and behavioral health services with a robust focus on addressing economic and social barriers that create health disparities.
We focus special attention on housing and food security, two of the social determinants that affect large numbers of Wallace patients. Since its launch in late 2018, our Housing for Health program has placed 22 patient families (79% people of color) in affordable housing along with wrap-around supportive services. A growing set of local partnerships connects our patients to a low-cost Community Supported Agriculture program, emergency food resources, culturally-based cooking and food traditions education, and ongoing benefits such as SNAP.
The community we serve fits the profile for those at high risk of COVID-19 transmission and severity—low-income, persons of color, underlying medical conditions, numerous health inequities. Many are “essential workers” in often unsafe work environments. Significant numbers live in crowded conditions or have no home at all. Too many have lost jobs, and health insurance. Stress levels have skyrocketed.
Along with other health centers, Wallace has dramatically increased telehealth services, to ease access to care and protect patient safety. We phone patients regularly, especially the most vulnerable, to check in with them and connect them to needed community resources. We’re using donated patient support funds to help with food, transportation, utility payments, rent and other emergencies. Our behavioral health team is providing increased coaching on stress reduction. Our insurance enrollers are helping recently unemployed patients sign up for Oregon Health Plan or other benefits.
Communities of color, immigrants and other underserved groups face unacceptable disadvantages in terms of health access and health outcomes, highlighted more than ever by the COVID-19 outbreak. In 2021, we’ll be launching a new population health approach that will help us to identify our most vulnerable patients and develop highly-focused, personalized care plans that integrate coordinated health services with social supports.
Back in 1984, Dr. Reuler founded Wallace in the belief that everyone deserves high-quality health care, regardless of circumstances. He was committed to meeting this need, one person at a time.
That hasn’t changed.