Patching Holes in the Health Safety Net

Learn a Little About Goleta-Based Direct Relief International

Thomas Tighe, Judy Cresap, Elisa Atwill, and Bob Cresap filling dental health packages.
J'Amy Brown

Long associated with disaster assistance overseas, Goleta-based Direct Relief International‘s regional and national support services are less well known. Without fanfare, DRI has developed, or strengthened, multiple programs over the past few years to help uninsured or underinsured Americans with their continuing healthcare needs as well as expanded its domestic disaster response.

“With 47 million Americans without health insurance, we saw a slow-motion disaster in the making,” explained DRI press secretary Jim Prosser, adding that local needs are part of the larger picture.

A recent sign of Direct Relief’s services to Goletans was the distribution of free protective masks during the Gap Fire last July. At the height of the wildfire, approximately 35,000 N-95 anti-particulate masks were distributed by DRI volunteers and staff at points in Goleta as well as through city and county agencies, the Elks Club, Friendship Manor, the UCSB Sports Camps, and the Red Cross. Emergency responders were also offered the masks.

The lung protectors – most were in stock at DRI’s Goleta warehouse, thanks to an earlier donation from CVS drugstores – symbolize the nonprofit’s capacity for quick response with medical supplies to immediate threats. This is what DRI has done so well over 60 years of service. However, since 2004, Direct Relief has quietly built a network of partnerships with what it calls “safety net clinics and health centers” that now covers all 50 states and Puerto Rico. And the partnership delivers far more than emergency medicines and medical supplies.

“Direct Relief is really a safety net for the safety net,” said Cynder Sinclair, executive director for the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics (SBNC), which numbers two medical clinics and a dental clinic in Santa Barbara and another medical clinic in Isla Vista. “Nearly 70 percent of our patients have income below the federal poverty level,” she added. Two-thirds of the people seen by the SBNC do not qualify for Medi-Cal, making them the face of the South Coast’s working poor.

When the clinics ran out of insulin for their diabetic patients, Direct Relief came to their assistance. Likewise, reported Sinclair, when one of their patients required a daily medicine that cost $11 a pill, DRI made arrangements to ease the burden. The clinics also received the N-95 masks last summer.

SBNC’s dental clinic on Milpas Street not only serves free care to adults but is also the only such facility in the county for the children of low-income parents. Its dentists and technicians regularly use supplies and dental tools provided under DRI’s “Healthy Smiles Dental Program.”

Begun in 1994 by Martha Angeles, Healthy Smiles provides full services, from teeth cleaning to extractions, to 120 Santa Barbara County children a year and arranges for around 60,000 children to receive tooth-care kits and, with their mothers, preventive dental instruction from Assistance League volunteers. DRI calls oral health “the number one unmet health need” in the county for low-income families.

Currently, more than 1,000 state-licensed medical clinics and centers participate in Direct Relief’s national partnership network. The nonprofit has worked on disasters with nearly all of them, explained Brett Williams, DRI’s emergency response coordinator. “We’ve identified people who do great work and just need the supplies to keep doing it,” he said.

Sometimes, the clinics need funds, and DRI has often found donors who will supply the cash. Over a two-year period following hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, Direct Relief funneled $4.6 million in grants to safety-net facilities and more than $31.8 million (in wholesale value) of specifically requested medical products, all of which were provided by pharmaceutical and healthcare firms.

These kinds of donations to competent, effective healthcare providers for the uninsured and underinsured free up local facilities’ resources. In turn, the clinics may hire more staff or expand services or hours. “For an organization like ours,” said Sinclair, “Direct Relief is an important partner, especially when the state’s budget is late in providing funds we count on.”

With the national economy diving into a recession, the Neighborhood Clinics administrative chief foresees only more demand for their services – and for DRI’s support of the safety net. “In 2007, our clinics had 41,000 total visits,” said Sinclair. “To date this year, we’ve already had 52,000. We’re trying to prepare for the big wave we see coming.”

The healthcare disaster is no longer in slow motion.

For more information on Direct Relief, see For more on the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, see


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