Sherry Hirota and the Asian Health Services

By Doreen Lew

Sherry M. Hirota is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Asian Health Services (AHS). She was born and raised in Berkeley. Her father was very active within the community, church, and schools. Therefore, giving back to the community was always emphasized in her family. Sherry says, " We all benefit from a thriving, interactive community. It was part of our family values to participate. I see Wa Sung doing so much of that in the community. The Easter Pancake Breakfast is one of my first memories."

Sherry originally went to San Francisco State in 1969 to become a school teacher and was informed that there were no teaching jobs. Also, Asian Studies, Ethnic Studies, and giving back to community were considered important at the time. She left school to move to Los Angeles to work full-time as a community worker. She later returned to the Bay Area where she worked a temporary job that had no health insurance. She went to Asian Health Services and found it to be her ideal place to go for health services. That’s what made her apply for work at Asian Health Services when a job opened up. After about a year, she became the office manager in 1976. Sherry went back to school and graduated with a Health Administration degree from St. Mary’s College. She also learned how to run the organization while on the job. She was promoted to several other positions before becoming Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in 1982.

Sherry lives in the East Bay and has 3 adult children and two grandchildren who all live in Oakland. She loves watching dance as well as dancing freestyle. Sherry’s pet peeve is discrimination. She feels it’s not healthy and that we can all benefit from being more compassionate and empathetic towards one another. She likes the fact that diversity is growing, especially in the Bay Area.

Her vision is to be the provider of choice and to also keep the community, healthy, happy, and thriving. This extends beyond the medical sense. AHS did a study to find out why so many people were getting injured or killed on their corner (9th & Webster Streets). The results showed that there were more people (density-wise) and more deaths and injuries at that intersection than anywhere else in Oakland. Most of the people (85%) were elderly and were trying to cross the street during heavy commute hours. The traffic signals were way too short for them to safely walk across the street. AHS worked with the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and the community to highlight the fact that traffic safety was a public health hazard because Oakland refused to install the scramble system that worked really well in San Francisco. The result was that they got the first scramble system installed in Oakland. The scramble system is where the light turns green, and the cars go in one direction. During the second set of lights, the car traffic goes in another direction. The third cycle of lights let the pedestrians walk in any direction. This is Sherry’s vision of a healthy community. It’s not just the absence of disease. It’s one that works together to build a sense of community. This makes people happier as they feel a sense of identity and work together to resolve problems that impact the community.

Sherry Hirota’s been very fortunate to work with a team of dedicated and talented people. Together as a team, they’ve managed to evolve Asian Health Services from a $100,000 budget to a $29 million budget. The staff has grown from 9 part-time workers to 250 workers. She says, “It’s been a labor of love. I feel so fortunate to be able to marry my personal values and passion of community work with my career.”

Asian Health Services (AHS) was founded in 1974. They are a comprehensive community health center that provides primary health services (medical, dental, behavioral health), insurance counseling, and client advocacy to the underserved Asian and Pacific Islander (API) population in Alameda County. Their mission is equal access to health care services regardless of a person’s income, insurance status, language, or culture.

Their main building is located at 818 Webster Street, Oakland. In July, 2010, they opened up the Kiang Medical Center located at 250 E. 18th Street, Oakland. A new clinic will be constructed in 2012 on the iconic Silver Dragon site at 835 Webster Street, Oakland.

They provide perinatal, pediatric, teen, adult, elderly, HIV, and dental services. They serve about 25,000 patients with over 101,000 patient visits annually. Their staff is fluent in ten languages: English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean, Khmer (Cambodian), Mien, Mongolian, Tagalog, and Lao.

Their patient care can be broken down as follows.

  • 86% - care provided in a language other than English
  • 97% - live 200% below the poverty level
  • 37% - uninsured
  • 34% - on Medi-Cal
  • 20% - younger than 15 years old
  • 20% - over 65 years old

AHS receives 40% of their funding from two on-going sources to provide a comprehensive scope of primary care to a community that has been designated as underserved. Alameda County provides a $3 million grant each year to provide care for the uninsured. AHS provides health care services to their patients on a sliding scale according to income and family size. The Federal government provides a grant of $2.5 million a year. They also have public-supported insurance such as Medi-Cal that accounts for 47% of AHS’s income. They also get 11% from private donations. Other sources of income make up the remaining 2%.

Artist's conception of the new AHS clinic at the former Silver Dragon building

It was announced on November 29, 2011, that Asian Health Services acquired the Silver Dragon building located on the corner of Webster and 9th Streets. The iconic Silver Dragon site was turned over to Asian Health Services with the blessing of the Chee Family. Wesley Chee, President of Silver Dragon, Inc., said his father, the late Wah Quon Chee, started Silver Dragon 55 years ago to promote pride in our Chinese heritage, hard work, and fine Cantonese culture. A total of 160 new jobs in the community will be created (60 clinic jobs and 100 construction jobs).

AHS is investing $10.5 million in the new clinic, including a $5.1 million Federal grant awarded to AHS as part of President Obama’s health care reform implementation. This grant is a construction-only grant and cannot be used for land acquisition. The clinic is also being funded by loans and equity generated through a New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) financing structure. This is a Federal tax incentive program created in 2000 to provide private investment capital to agencies located in low-income communities that cannot otherwise obtain traditional financing. Asian Health Services will receive $3 million in tax credit from this program. Their fundraising campaign to raise $2 million for the Silver Dragon acquisition begins in March. They hope to work with Wa Sung and everyone else. They want to engage the community by letting everyone know what they’re doing and how it benefits the community.

President Obama’s health care reform impacted AHS in several ways. There was $6 million in the health care reform trust fund given to health centers that expanded operations between now and 2014, and $1.9 billion allocated for capital expansion of community health centers throughout the United States. It was a competitive process, and AHS was very fortunate to get one of the six grants given to California. They were approved in 2010 and were asked to get something built by 2012. Health care reform asked health centers to double the amount of patients they are seeing because, if more people are insured, they need to have access to primary care.

AHS will be seeking additional Federal and County funds to help support the operations of the clinic for the next few years as this new clinic will serve 10,000 new patients and 40,000 more patient visits annually at full capacity. AHS currently has 3,000 patients who are wait-listed to get routine physical exam appointments. Sick patients or urgent care patients are seen immediately.

Construction of the new site begins middle to late March, and the scheduled completion is targeted for late 2012. Ninety percent (90%) of the construction will be to the interior of the building, mostly to transform the restaurant space to clinic space. The exterior will be updated but will more or less look the way it looks now. The first floor will be registration, administrative, and community conference rooms. The second floor will be adult elderly care (geriatrics) with 10 exam rooms. The third floor will be for family practice of all ages and also will have 10 exam rooms. Below is the rendering for the proposed new site.

Asian Health Services’ perinatal program provides comprehensive and culturally competent prenatal and postpartum services. It includes educational workshops, family violence screening and support, labor coach program, and other services.

Their pediatric services begin when their providers visit the newborns and follow them through their childhood. Services consist of a 24-hour help line, asthma screening and control program, urgent care, well-child visits, childhood obesity program, dental referrals to the Asian Health Services Dental Clinic, vision screening, and more.

Their teen clinic helps teens deal with conflicts such as how to handle the traditional values of their immigrant family versus living in the United States, intergenerational conflict, role reversal, and cultural taboos regarding dating. Some of the services include chronic and acute medical care, pregnancy testing, STD testing and treatment, and reproductive health.

Adult services are provided to deal with high blood pressure, diabetes, asthma, HIV, urgent care needs, heart, intestinal, gynecological, surgical, nerve, skin, tobacco cessation, and other specialty conditions. They also screen for cancer, TB, and diabetes.

Many of the elderly care services are similar to the adult services except they are focused on issues affecting the elderly. They assess the client’s independent living skills, monitor their medication, provide social services such as long-term care and paratransit, perform psychosocial and psychotherapy, manage hospice and dementia patients, and other services.

AHS’ HIV/AIDS program offers anonymous and confidential testing to individuals in a way that is culturally sensitive and communicates in a language the person can understand. They also provide prevention education to Asian communities to seek early HIV testing.

There are many providers associated with Asian Health Services in the areas of family practice, internal medicine, pediatrics, nutrition, dental services, behavioral health, and perinatal care. These providers have a passion to provide the best service to their clients.

Asian Health Services provides clinical rotations for those in the medical field, does summer internships, and has many volunteer opportunities.

AHS needs your help in raising the $2 million needed for the Silver Dragon acquisition. This expansion will better service the health needs of the community. For more information or to make a donation, please call (510) 986-6830 or visit their website at www.asianhealthservices.org.