Health alliance adds acupuncture to its offerings

David Briggs
Alexis Richardson is now offering acupuncture to patients of the Coastal Health Alliance.  

Through a new partnership with the Coastal Health Alliance, Alexis Richardson is expanding her mission to bring affordable acupuncture to West Marin. Last week, she started seeing patients at the alliance’s sister clinics in Point Reyes Station and Bolinas.

The Coastal Health Alliance received a federal grant earlier this year that targeted mental health and substance abuse disorders, particularly the effects of the opioid crisis. C.E.O. Steven Siegel said the nonprofit health center decided to use the money to invest in acupuncture services, which similar clinics have already deployed.

“We know the more services we can offer to help people, the better. So we’re adding services to help with pain, because that’s the original source of the opioid issue. It’s great to have [acupuncture], and West Marin favors alternative modalities, so it seemed natural,” he said. 

Ms. Richardson has been practicing acupuncture for a decade, after discovering that it helped ameliorate the persistent pain of headaches. She received a master’s of science from the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine in San Diego, a four-year degree that required her to study everything from herbalism to nutrition. She logged clinical hours at a hospice and in the oncology ward of a children’s hospital.

Three years ago, Ms. Richardson moved to the area and founded the West Marin Acupuncture Collective, which she operates out of a second-floor space in the Tomales Bay Foods building. “I love West Marin,” she said. “I just wanted to be here, and I noticed there was no affordable acupuncture.” 

The community-style acupuncture model, which Ms. Richardson learned during her time practicing at Petaluma Community Acupuncture, allows multiple people to receive treatment at the same time. 

“One of the big benefits of that is you can keep the cost of acupuncture down,” she said. “It’s a completely different price point [and] I can give frequent treatments. It’s about practicing on the community level: I feel like West Marin was primed for that.” 

Because West Marin is small and relatively close-knit, Ms. Richardson’s private practice, which seats four, is often filled with people who know each other. “People don’t chit-chat, but there’s definitely a lot of smiling at each other,” she said. 

Due to space limitations, her practice at the C.H.A. clinic in Point Reyes Station will utilize two private acupuncture rooms, but at the Bolinas clinic space will allow for the community model.   

Mr. Siegel said that covering the service was “a little complicated for us in terms of what care is going to be reimbursed.” Medicare, and many forms of private insurance, do not cover acupuncture, though Medi-Cal does. 

To accommodate more patients, Mr. Siegel said, the health alliance has ways to keep fees down, such as offering a sliding scale based on family size and income, and a “prompt pay” discount that allows patients to only pay half of the service’s total cost. 

“If it’s not covered, then we have ways to make it affordable,” he said. “We don’t want anyone turned away.” 

Ms. Richardson is excited to expand her reach to those who may have been unable to access her services in the past. “I came to West Marin with this mission of providing affordable acupuncture, and this is an open door to a lot of people who can use their insurance for acupuncture or be on a sliding scale,” she said. “It’ll make it even more accessible.” 

Point Reyes Station resident Cathleen Dorinson said she is glad to hear of the new partnership. 

“Thank god—I think everybody should be able to go to an acupuncturist if they want, and doctors should be aware of it,” she said. 

Ms. Richardson will be retaining her own practice and client base, and the clinics will only take acupuncture clients who are established patients at C.H.A. and referred from a primary care provider. Currently, Ms. Richardson has around 300 patients who hail from Tomales to Stinson Beach. Some come for four- to-six-week treatments, others come every week to maintain their health. 

Acupuncture, Ms. Richardson explained, can help all kinds of pain, whether acute, chronic or “existential,” by re-aligning the balance of the body’s organ systems. Her intake form asks patients to relay stress, digestion and energy levels in addition to their existing ailment. 

“It’s a whole-body exam,” she said. “Sometimes, if someone has neck pain, we might be putting needles in someone’s lower leg, but it’s because it balances the channels, or the meridians, that go in the neck.”

Treatments are personalized for each patient. “You could have four people come in with neck pain, and they might receive four completely different treatments because it’s all about where that person is and what their body is needing,” she said. 

She added, “It’s a very unique way of looking at the body, but really it’s quite simple. You put points in to help balance.” 

Diane O’Reilly, who lives in Inverness, has been seeing Ms. Richardson for over a year to deal with post-concussion syndrome. Although Ms. O’Reilly said she was terrified of needles before her first visit, Ms. Richardson eased her concerns. 

“I’ve come to find it the most helpful treatment for my condition,” she said. “Alexis spends a lot of time listening to me—she’s able to address both the physical and the cognitive issues. [Acupuncture] clears my thinking, it helps me organize my thoughts, it calms any kind of social issues that come up for me: it just helps me feel more grounded as well as alleviate the pain of my headaches.”

After seeing acupuncture work for Ms. O’Reilly, her daughter, son, and husband all turned to Ms. Richardson as well. Ms. O’Reilly recalled the way Ms. Richardson was able to needle away a painful bump on her husband’s foot. “It’s not real magic, it’s skill,” she said.