UMMA Clinic bridges gap between need and Islamic tradition

Jan. 30, 2012, 9:04 p.m.

UMMA Clinic, pictured above, was originally conceptualized as a mobile clinic. The community protested -- and the student founders listened.

During the 1992 L.A. riots, 711 West Florence Avenue was dilapidated, asbestos-ridden and run-down. It had previously been the Betty Boop's Childcare Center, which had been the only childcare service available to many single mothers in the community. Upon the closing of Betty Boop's, the building became a crackhouse -- a haven for drug use and prostitution.

That was then. Today, 711 West Florence is home to the UMMA Community Clinic, the first Muslim community clinic in the U.S. UMMA, which is an acronym for the University Muslim Medical Association, is also the Arabic word for "community," according to president and CEO Yasser Aman.

"UMMA is not necessarily a religious institution, but it does have moral and ethical values that are espoused by Islam and shared with other faiths," said Aman. "Everybody deserves some level of healthcare as a fundamental right. UMMA bridges the gap between the act of providing social services and the community that, in its very deepest tradition, has done that for many years, from the first [Islamic] hospital in Damascus in the eighth century up to the Islamic medical tradition in the U.S. UMMA has actually inspired closed to 36 other Muslim community clinics since its inception."

And its inception was a unique one. After the riots in 1992, a group of Muslim-American students from UCLA and Charles Drew University wanted to start a mobile clinic for the community, but community leaders stopped them right there -- they were "sick and tired of mobile things," explained Aman. So they demanded something more permanent. UMMA's namesake, the University Muslim Medical Association, was established and two years later, building of the clinic had begun. At that point, said Aman, many of the students involved were storing a lot of the donated equipment in their parents' garages. They had everything they needed for a clinic except the building.

UMMA Clinic's doors opened to its first patient in 1996 thanks to a two-year grant from the city, but the clinic's staff managed to "milk it for four years because it was primarily a volunteer-run program," explained Aman. It almost went under in 2000 because it was still operating off the free-clinic model, but one appeal to the Southern California Muslim community led to nearly $400,000 raised in a single night at one fundraiser. That night, said Aman, marked a commitment "not to do this completely depending on one community" -- so UMMA Clinic began writing grants, looking for county partnerships and other methods of sustaining itself.

Today, UMMA Clinic has moved away from the free clinic model and has a full-time, paid staff of just over 30. Since its beginning, it has served over 25,000 members of the community and provided over 11,000 patient visits alone.

Aman called it a "poster child social service model," and said the clinic has played an important role in post-9/11 America. "Since 9/11, it has been a significant organization in bridging all levels of government with the community at large to talk about building bridges between the Muslim community and their capacity, and the needs of the community," he said.

On a more local scale, it's bridged other kinds of gaps. UMMA's patient breakdown is reflective of the community, according to Aman -- 73 percent Latino, 19 percent black, three percent Caucasian. Only two percent are Muslim. A large majority are uninsured -- about 70 percent. Only one percent self-pay; the rest are covered by programs and might pay based on a sliding scale, but services are provided regardless.

"My day-to-day is taking the challenges of immense need on the ground and trying to translate that into medical service," said Aman, referring to the surge of patients that occurred in the aftermath of the closure of Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in 2007. "It's trying to work with grant funding and private donations and use that to provide health services that are as comprehensive as possible. One of the major things we're undertaking is how do we look at UMMA not only as an isolated clinic out in a densely-populated community, but as in a network with other medical centers." As such, UMMA is a founding member of the South Side Coalition of Community Health Centers, a network of non-profit community clinics that have joined together to "better sustain, coordinate and improve healthcare to the impoverished, vulnerable, publicly-insured and under- or uninsured people without access to care" in South L.A. The UMMA Clinic also just came off an expansion that doubled its capacity to serve the community, and is going to make the leap into more advanced and comprehensive information exchange techniques with other clinics and medical centers when it makes the switch from paper medical records to electronic ones later this year.

"When you ask our patients if the Muslim thing matters, for the most part they say, 'No; you are my doctor and you are my medical home,'" said Aman. "That in and of itself is an honor -- being the first place upon which an adult can depend for a very important part of life and not be concerned anymore, and have someone here to take care of them."

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