Nationally Ranked Locally Trusted | (303) 436-6000

Celebrating 50 Years of Community Health

Denver Health is celebrating 50 years of providing access to quality health care to everyone, regardless of ability to pay. On March 7, 1966, the Eastside Family Health Center opened, the first health center of its kind west of the Mississippi. Since then, Denver Health’s community health center network has grown to include eight family health centers and 17 school-based health centers. In April 2016, Denver Health will open its largest health center yet on south Federal Boulevard, the Southwest Family Health Center. True to its mission, the Southwest Family Health center will provide full spectrum primary care, oral health care, behavioral health care, as well as community navigators and space in the center that can be used by the community. Once the new center is fully opened, Denver Health will provide primary care to over 160,000 patients.

In an era when civil rights and poverty were at the center of political discussions, medical leaders at Denver Health identified the important role of wellness in transforming a community. With the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, and the establishment of the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), hospital administrators quickly identified an opportunity to finally bridge the gap between acute hospital care and preventive medicine. As part of some of the OEO initiatives, many in the community were given free physical exams. These examinations revealed a large disparity in health between the more privileged and those who were unable to afford health care. This discovery quickly forced the OEO to rethink the role of health care in relation to poverty and community wellness.

The first grant for health care delivery from the OEO was given to Tufts University Medical School. Health officials at Denver Health, led by Mayor Tom Currigan, were not far behind. In 1965 a proposal was accepted by the OEO and the first community health center west of the Mississippi was established in Denver. It was only two days behind the Boston grant. After some review of census data, Denver Health identified the Five Points neighborhood as the site of the first health center. At the time, approximately 200,000 people lived in the area, earned low wages and lived in substandard housing. It was no surprise that the residents also suffered from serious health conditions. Only 17 percent of five-year-olds had up-to-date polio and diphtheria immunizations, and infant mortality rates were 37 percent higher than in other more affluent Denver neighborhoods.

Little Girl Getting Check up

Eastside Family Health Center. October 14, 1966. Photo by Duane Howell/The Denver Post


A dilapidated bakery in the neighborhood was purchased and transformed into the Eastside Family Health Center. Staffed by primary care physicians and other specialists, the health center was designed to treat a number of diseases and to educate the community about wellness and the importance of preventing disease through regular check-ups. The clinic opened its doors on March 7, 1966, and in the first 14 days of operation the health center served 1,200 people. Within the first year, more than 14,000 patients were seen at the center. The response was unprecedented and Denver Health was well on its way to becoming an integrated system providing care for everyone in Denver, regardless of income, class, race or gender.