Neil Sullivan ’73

A Shot in the Arm for Those in Need

By Terry Godbey

Neil Sullivan performs a check up. Photo by Lisa Valencia Sherratt.

Dr. Neil Sullivan says he lives “a rich life”—but he isn’t talking about his bank account. The medical director of the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics is talking about the satisfaction of providing medical care to low-income families. “Our patients are just so appreciative of everything we do for them, and through the years we’ve been able to develop our services and facilities so we can really provide comprehensive care to those in need,” he said.

Sullivan took the helm of the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics in 1999 following the merger of three Southern California nonprofit clinics that had treated the poor since the 1970s. He had held the same post at one of those clinics, Carrillo Community Medical Clinic, since 1982. A dental clinic came under the umbrella in 2003.

In Santa Barbara County, one in five people has no health insurance, Sullivan said. “People have this concept of Santa Barbara being like Beverly Hills where everyone’s rich, but actually that’s only pockets of the area, and then there are other large areas where a completely indigent population exists.”

Most of these are service workers who toil in houses, gardens, restaurants, and stores, Sullivan said. Almost 70 percent of the clinics’ patients are Latinos. The 15,000 patients are charged based on income, and some are unable to pay at all.

Sullivan, 59, knew from age 5 he wanted to be a doctor and says he always intended to be the kind of physician who cared more about patients than money. He believes strongly in his work. “I went to Rollins on a scholarship, having grown up relatively poor, and I’ve always felt that everybody deserved equal access to quality health care.”

He calls the clinics a model for the future because “we have practiced in austere and unfair conditions with the lowest financial resources for really four decades. The for-profit medical establishment is not used to that.”

Indeed, the clinics are expert at harnessing help from programs and grants, which allow them to offer free family planning, nutritional counseling, X-rays, mammograms, and prescription drugs. They have a program to treat 1,100 people suffering from obesity, diabetes, and related diseases, and they provide free care to the homeless. “It just takes a little work and finding the right avenues in order to make those things happen,” Sullivan said.

The clinics are thankful for support from the community. “The community’s become kind of dependent on us. Who else is going to see these patients? We’re seeing an average of 390 new patients a month.”

Sullivan, who has been married 30 years to Joan Sullivan, loves living in Santa Barbara, where he enjoys surfing and playing tennis and golf. He looks back at his time at Rollins, where he majored in chemistry, as the best four years of his life because of the “experiences, the closeness of professors, the relationships that developed with people. … It was an exciting time, 1969 to 1973.”