Member Spotlight: Sea Mar Community Health Center

A Place for the Community to Come Together and Support Its Own

Sea Mar Community Health Centers serve the Western Washington community as one of its largest providers of community-based health and human services, providing everything from dental and medical care to housing assistance and social services to a diverse population.

The name “Sea Mar” stems from the organization’s beginnings in 1977, when a group of community activists recognized the need for bilingual and bicultural services for Latinos in Washington. The group applied for a federal grant to open the first Sea Mar clinic in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, with the goal of later opening another clinic in Marysville.

Sea Mar’s mission statement says, in part, that it’s a “community based organization committed to providing quality, comprehensive health, human, housing, educational and cultural services to diverse communities.” This mission is reflected by its 2,500 employees, each of whom is dedicated to serving Sea Mar’s patients and clients in the community.

One such employee, Michael Leong, began serving as a board member at Sea Mar Community Health Centers. Their mission to provide medical and other crucial services to underserved people around the state so resonated with him that he eventually took a role on staff as a practicing attorney for the organization. “I realized that what I really wanted to do was work in a team environment that was mission-driven,” says Leong, who is now—17 years later—Sea Mar’s senior vice president for corporate and legal affairs. “The staff is compassionate and dedicated to serving underserved communities.”

The health and social services agency is now located in 11 counties throughout Western Washington, and provides services to almost 250,000 patients and clients annually. While serving in diverse communities, Sea Mar specializes in service to Latinos.

The organization’s core offerings are medical, dental, mental-health, and substance-abuse services, but it has expanded its services in answer to community demand. These now include:

  • Long-term-care and skilled-nursing facilities
  • Inpatient substance-abuse treatment
  • Health education
  • Maternity-support services under the largest privately run WIC program in the state

In addition, Sea Mar’s offerings include a bilingual child development center, two low-income housing developments, seasonal farmworker housing, educational achievement programs, youth services, work-skills training, and two Spanish-language radio stations that promote community advocacy and health education.

To ensure it meets all the needs, both physical and mental, of those it serves, Sea Mar employs a number of outreach strategies. One of these is a boxing club to help youth keep fit and stay in school. “We work with the Seattle School District to coordinate school objectives with our boxing program,” Leong says. “The youth in the boxing club are required to achieve a certain GPA to participate, and the program includes a tutoring component. We try to be as comprehensive as possible in our services.”

Sea Mar is committed to integrating care. A care coordinator at each medical clinic works with patients to help them meet their health goals and understand the resources available to them. Staff members even make referrals to resources, both within Sea Mar and in the greater community, to ensure everyone is connected with the services they need. “There is a current trend of integrating behavioral health and primary care, and we’ve been doing that for a long time,” Leong says. “We recognize that people usually need more than what they initially come in for. I think we’re good at understanding the full range of needs of patients, and also excel at being flexible and responsive in meeting those needs.” This includes quickly connecting medical patients with dieticians or social workers during a visit, or arranging a meeting with an integration specialist who works with a patient’s primary-care provider to make sure any behavioral health needs are addressed. 

“We’re only able to do what we do effectively because of the caliber of our employees,” Leong says. “Our key strength is that we have a very committed staff of professional providers, as well as support staff. The people who work here see personal value in our mission.” A lot of Sea Mar’s providers and employees have been with the organization for many years and envision Sea Mar as their career—and in that way, their mission creates longevity. This is reflected throughout Sea Mar at all staff levels, including provider staff, support staff, and executive leadership. Rogelio Riojas, for example, who was Sea Mar’s first executive director in 1978, remains its chief executive officer, and Sea Mar’s chief dental officer, Dr. Alex Narvaez, joined the organization in 1982.

Sea Mar has taken big steps to ensure that the next generation of health-care providers is ready to serve their clients, by founding residency programs for physicians and advanced registered nurse practitioners. Sea Mar was one of the first health centers in the country to offer a community-health-center-based residency program at its South Park Seattle clinic,in partnership with Swedish Hospital. They are now in the process of opening their own accredited program in Marysville, in partnership with Providence Hospital. Already, hundreds have applied for the first six medical-resident slots.

“We’ve learned that a lot of the residents who had worked here had decided, during their training, that community health was what they wanted to pursue, and they either stayed with Sea Mar or went on to another community health center,” Leong says. “Our chief medical officer, Dr. Ricardo Jiménez, originally came to Sea Mar as a part of our Seattle residency program. It’s a great recruitment tool, in terms of what community medicine is about, and it helps people develop a passion for this type of work. Certainly, with a large shortage of primary-care providers everywhere, this program is very helpful.”

Looking to the future, Sea Mar is keeping a close eye on the status of the Affordable Care Act, which has benefitted hundreds of thousands of Washingtonians, including many Sea Mar patients. “Right now, challenges surround the repeal of the ACA and what the replacement might be,” Leong says. “We’re speculating, but it’s a tumultuous time, and we’re doing a lot of planning and advocacy. There’s a lot going on with health-care reform overall, and we’ll likely see Washington continue with healthcare reform efforts. The governor has given priority to mental-health funding, which is a good thing for our community and the patients we serve.” Meanwhile, Sea Mar will continue doing what it does best—caring for vulnerable populations, breaking down barriers to access for services, and advocating for its

patients and communities.