Stamford Advocate: New book details the rise of Community Health Center Inc. from CT storefront to national force01/10/2023
A new book chronicles the rise of an institution that started a half-century ago when a 20-year-old Middletown man with no college degree and no medical training, but plenty of ambition, founded a free-walk-in clinic.
Today, that clinic, Community Health Center, is the largest provider of primary health care in Connecticut, with 19 main sites and more than 200 locations in schools and shelters, offering medical, dental and behavioral health services to 150,000 people. CHC, still based in Middletown and still headed by founder Mark Masselli, also has a footprint in all 50 states with its training and health-care delivery research arm.
“Peace & Health, How a group of small-town activists and college students set out to change healthcare,” explores the founding of the nonprofit organization, its expansion and ultimately the key roles it played in the COVID-19 crisis.
Masselli is a self-described member of the hippie generation who, with his peers, were intent on advancing the free clinic movement. CHC, which marked its 50th year of service last May 1, has come very far from its beginnings in a small, two-room medical and dental clinic located in a former apartment just off Main Street in Middletown.
The 164-page book, commissioned by CHC, details the engrossing history of the clinic, from its humble beginnings as Masselli’s dream to one of the “most innovative health centers in the country,” according to author Charles Barber, a Wesleyan University associate professor in the College of Letters and a lecturer of psychiatry for the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven.
For the first decade of the Community Health Center’s establishment, the author said, “it was absolutely touch and go.”
The book is replete with old photographs, newspaper articles, documents and daily notes from Masselli, who, at the time, had no credentials to do administrative or clinical work, Barber wrote.
However, Masselli, the CEO, told Hearst Connecticut Media, “What 20-year-old doesn’t want to conquer the world?”
Camping out in a ‘ramshackle’ storefront
The main office now is located on the north end of Main Street, with a knowledge and technology enter — headquarters of Weitzman Institute, named for an early supporter — around the corner.
Fifty years ago, Masselli joined a group of Wesleyan students who created a drop-in center called TOUCH Inc. to provide support for young runaways, drug counseling, draft counseling and 24/7 crisis line, according to Barber. It was located in a donated space in a Middletown Episcopal church, and later an old “ramshackle” store, Carrie Plumbing & Heating Co., on Main Street.
Masselli’s efforts, including camping out at Carrie’s for three cold days, were “out of desperation,” he told Hearst.
The North End was perfect for a “rebooted version of CHC,” according to the book. “It was in the ‘undesirable’ and more impoverished part of town … away from the crosshairs of the medical establishment.”
The founder had set his sights on securing the building, which he believed wasn’t being used regularly. When he consulted the building’s owner, he was told the tenant owed back rent, so he was more than agreeable for the young man to get the keys, if he could. The tenant had changed the locks.
“I went there every day: 9 o’clock in the morning, 12 o’clock, 5 o’clock. I noticed some of the supplies moved, but I’d been here all the time. ‘It’s not possible,’” he thought. The plan worked.
Masselli said his time as one of the CHC’s five co-founders was “exhilarating”: community activist Reba Moses, noted jazz musician James Moody, Gerry Weitzman, a pharmacist who eventually owned Pelton’s Drug Store, and John Hickenlooper, now U.S. Senator from Colorado, who also was that state’s governor and mayor of Denver.
John Hickenlooper to the rescue
Hickenlooper, still a close friend of Masselli’s, attended the 50th anniversary celebration last spring, where he and Masselli recalled those days when it was never clear the clinic would survive.
“We were part of an early group of change-makers,” Masselli said. “We realized early on we had to be exceptional. There’s a higher standard for those bringing change about and then executing it. … Young people are inherently committed to making their communities better. I don’t think it was unique to us. That’s axiomatic, but so often there isn’t the opportunity to do this work.”
Hickenlooper, Masselli’s roommate at the time, earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees in geology at Wesleyan. “That’s not necessarily a natural affinity for being a community organizer, but he was taken by the proposition that we could build something unique, and we could do it on our own,” the CEO explained.
CHC renovated the first floor of the run-down heating company building. However, operations were shut down when the tenants above flooded the entire place three times in 15 months, Masselli explained. All of the founders’ money, which was not much, had been put into the facility, he added.
The only solution was to buy the building, but Masselli and his partners had run out of cash. The now-senator had a modest trust fund for his education, and was willing to draw from that to keep the operation afloat.
“We were all passionate about it because that was something we were doing full-time,” he added. “Yet, here was somebody who thought the proposition of trying to help your neighbor was something we all had responsibility in doing.”
That move was “foundational” for the health center’s success,” Masselli said. “It needed some financial support and Hick was there at the right moment.”
The now-senator later moved to Colorado, purchased the Wynkoop Brewing Co. and eventually helped transform the LODO neighborhood in Denver. “He’s a big supporter to this day,” Masselli said.
‘Health care is a right’
Today, CHC is the largest of some 16 nonprofit health care providers in Connecticut known as Federally Qualified Health Centers, which receive Medicaid reimbursement, among other funding sources. Through the Weitzman Institute, which was founded in 2007, CHC’s portfolio now includes the National Institute for Medical Assistant Advancement in Denver, as well as locations in California.
The Weitzman Institute was founded in 2007 and immediately launched the nation’s first residency program for nurse practitioners; there are now almost 400 such programs. The institute also created a national platform for online medical consultations by specialists, which became crucial in the pandemic.
“So many people helped us along that journey to make health care affordable for people locked out,” Masselli said. That sentiment is reflected in the health center’s motto: “Health care is a right, not a privilege.”
Barber has many connections to Middletown and Wesleyan as a native who grew up on Pine Street. His father, like Masselli’s (a chemist at the university), was a professor. Both also graduated from Xavier High School.
Masselli approached Barber about two years ago with the idea for the book, “I had no idea what I was in for,” Barber said of the labor-intensive history project.
The health center ran into opposition in the early years, Barber said. “Starting in 1972 — and over the next five decades — Mark would constantly run up against the rigid mores of the ‘Land of Steady Habits,’” and often he would be rebuffed, he wrote in the book.
The state Department of Public Health inspected the renovated facility in the early 1970s, Barber wrote, and found the hallway was an inch too narrow to meet building codes. It ordered the place closed.
“We set up the operation, we got the free clinic going, and we had that proverbial knock at the door by the state of Connecticut asking us if we had a license. My response was, ‘do we really need one?’” Masselli said, laughing at the thought. “The reality is, we did, and we were shut down.”
Later, Barber wrote, Masselli discovered the “true reason” for the shutdown was 30 members of the then-Middlesex Memorial Hospital medical staff wrote a letter saying they were concerned by the standards of care. In July 1973, Masselli spoke to the local board of health, whose members “were not sympathetic, and some were antagonistic.”
The board eventually sided with the center.
During the coronavirus crisis, the health center made headlines after launching a number of COVID testing and vaccination centers, including the four large, drive-through vaccination sites in Middletown, Stamford, Danbury and the largest, dubbed “Vaccine Village,” at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
The testing sites opened during the “early, nightmarish days of COVID, when its mode of transmission was not understood,” the book notes. The wide-open Rentschler Field is described as “dismal — a dusty, forgotten no-man’s land” between the Pratt & Whitney jet engine factory and the football stadium. The health center got it up and running in five days in the winter of 2021.
More than 20 fixed testing sites and dozens of mobile locations conducted more than 600,000 COVID tests, seven days a week for more than a year, Barber wrote.
For information, visit peaceandhealth.com.