Editorial: Tapestry Health marks 40 years of service to western Massachusetts health needs

Last modified: Monday, November 25, 2013

Tomorrow, an organization that helps save lives in western Massachusetts pauses for a celebration. The nonprofit Tapestry Health, which shares a birthday with a famous Supreme Court ruling, is turning 40.

It was in 1973 that the organization got its start as the Family Planning Council of Western Massachusetts, the same year the Roe v. Wade decision made it legal for women in the United States to end unwanted pregnancies.

Put the two together and you might call 1973 the start of the modern era in the ability of American women to control their health and destiny. It was a long time ago, as this may help make clear: The year before, it became legal for the first time for single women to obtain contraception.

Today, Tapestry Health provides essential care for young people, most of them women. In the past year, its 121 employees provided services to 10,000 clients in 17,000 clinical visits through offices in Amherst, Florence, Greenfield, Holyoke, Northampton, Springfield, West Springfield and three communities in Berkshire County. The backbone of its funding remains the federal Title X law supporting family planning, enacted in 1970.

Over the decades, Tapestry Health, under the steady hand of Leslie Tarr Laurie, evolved to meet changing needs. It grew geographically from its Northampton base to reach clients in all four western counties. And with the backing of a strong board of directors, it expanded programs to meet newly identified needs — even when new projects proved politically unpopular.

For instance, Tapestry Health moved in 1995 to confront the spread of HIV and AIDS by creating a program in Northampton that enables intravenous drug users to trade dirty needles for clean ones. Tapestry estimates that 30 percent of HIV/AIDS cases in western Massachusetts stem from IV drug use.

The state Department of Public Health credits Tapestry Health with saving more than 250 lives by participating in a demonstration program involving Narcan, a nasal spray that counteracts an opiate overdose.

All the while, Tapestry Health has relied for all of its work not just on fees and committed private donors but on help from Washington, D.C. With the sequester cuts, it is now one of many Massachusetts organizations that stands to see that support erode. Last year, Tapestry lost 5 percent of its federal funding. “It’s truly one of the most challenging times,” Laurie said in a recent interview with the Gazette.

The arrival of Obamacare means more change. Roughly 40 percent of Tapestry’s clients are not insured. Since their average age is 24, the new law’s provision allowing children to remain covered by a parent’s health insurance policy might seem to be a gain, but that doesn’t always work as expected. Some clients do not want parents to know of care related to sexually transmitted diseases or domestic violence.

Even clients with health coverage face rising deductibles and may be so cash-strapped they see care as unaffordable. But the agency feels no one needing its services should be priced out. Tapestry allows clients to pay what they can afford. This long-standing policy enables Tapestry to fill gaps in care.

It shoulders the financial burden because it believes low-income clients deserve care just as much as anyone else.

That’s a prime reason it counts on community support. Many of its most loyal backers will gather in Holyoke Saturday for tours of one of its clinics and the needle exchange program it began last year. Then they celebrate. Today, people can also drop by Tapestry’s 16 Center St. offices in Northampton, from 2 to 4 p.m., for an open house with cider and an anniversary cake.

In the past few weeks, anyone with a memory of Tapestry’s 40 years has been able to call in comments to a phone line.

This oral history will be compiled as the Tapestry Health Voice Quilt and will be archived in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.

The collection already houses Tapestry’s founding documents. Even as the agency continues to serve clients, there is no doubting its historical significance.


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