A free clinic is a health care facility in the United States offering services to economically disadvantaged individuals for free or at a nominal cost. Core staff members may hold full-time paid positions, however, most of the staff a patent will encounter are volunteers drawn from the local medical community. Care is provided free of cost to persons who have limited incomes, no health insurance and do not qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. To offset costs, some clinics charge a nominal fee to those whose income is deemed sufficient to pay a fee. Many free clinics offer services to underinsured individuals; meaning those who have only limited medical coverage (such as catastrophic care coverage, but not regular coverage), or who have insurance, but their policies include high medical deductibles that they are unable to afford. Clinics often use the term “underinsured” to describe the working poor.
Most free clinics provide care for acute, non-emergency medical conditions. Some also provide a full range of primary care; including preventive care and care for chronic conditions. Some free clinics include licensed pharmacies and dental services. Few if any free clinics offer pain management care, as such care usually involves prescribing prescription strength narcotics. Handling narcotics requires a greater level of security for the clinic, along with more paperwork and regulations. Most free clinics find it more cost effective to invest their time and money in other areas of health care and leave pain management to traditional health care providers.
The modern notion of a free clinic began in the 1960s in San Francisco when Dr. David Smith founded the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics in 1967  during the summer of love in the Haight Ashbury district. Free clinics quickly spread to other California cities and the rest of the United States. In 1972 a meeting was held at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington DC where clinic staff from around the country gathered and listened to speakers including Dr. Smith. At this meeting the slogan “Health Care is a Right Not a Privilege” emerged as a theme.
During the 1970s and 80s free clinics continued to evolve and change to meet the needs of their individual communities, however some were unable to survive. Each free clinic was unique in its development and services, based on the particular needs and resources of the local community. There is a saying among free clinic organizations that, if you have been to one free clinic, you have been to all free clinics. The common denominator is that care is made possible through the service of volunteers, the donation of goods and community support. Funding is generally donated on the local level and there is little —if any— government funding. Some free clinics were established to provide medical services in the inner cities while others opened in the suburbs and many student-run free clinics have emerged that serve the under-served as well as provide a medical training site for students in the health professions.
Free clinics are defined by the National Association of Free Clinics as “safety-net health care organizations that utilize a volunteer/staff model to provide a range of medical, dental, pharmacy, vision and/or behavioral health services to economically disadvantaged individuals. Such clinics are 501(c)3 tax-exempt organizations, or operate as a program component or affiliate of a 501(c)(3) organization.”
There is an academic model for free clinics. The Society of Student-Run Free Clinics (SSRFC) hosts a national inter-professional platform for student-run clinics through both an annual conference, website, and newsletter in order to increase communication to foster the sharing of ideas, to collaborate on research, to provide funding resources and to expand the existing scope of clinics as well as cultivate the growth of the new ones. The SSRFC faculty network works to facilitate collaboration between student run free clinics. Wikipedia hosts an updated list of medical schools in the United States.
- National Association of Free Clinics
- Volunteers in Medicine
- Haight Ashbury Free Clinics
- The Students' Health And Welfare Centres Organisation, a University of Cape Town student-run organisation offering free clinics in Cape Town, South Africa
- Berkeley Free Clinic, a nonprofit clinic in Berkeley, California
- The Suitcase Clinic, a student run free clinic in Berkeley, California
- University of Kentucky Salvation Army Clinic, a student-run free clinic
- UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic Project, a student-run free clinic in San Diego, California
- Tzu Chi, a Taiwanese-based Buddhist organization with free clinics in California
- Gary Burnstein Community Health Clinic, a non profit, volunteer supported Free Clinic in Pontiac, Michigan
- Seymour, Richard (1987). The Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinics: Still free after all these years, 1967-1987. San Francisco, California: Partisan Press.
- NAFC. "What is a Free or Charitable Clinic?". Retrieved 25 February 2013.