Dr. David Ores is not a typical doctor. That much becomes apparent within moments of meeting him.
When we find each other in front of his Lower East Side medical clinic at 11 o’clock on a Friday morning—no earlier interview, he’d requested, as he’s “not a morning person”—he greets me in faded baggy jeans and a red short-sleeve shirt that shows off the tattoo sleeves that cover his arms.
A small, slightly chubby white dog whose hair has been shaved and dyed into a reddish Mohawk paces at his feet. Ores opens the clinic’s door and the dog—Falkor is his name, I later learn, after the luckdragon in The Neverending Story—bounds inside and tackles the bone that lies on the carpeted floor amidst strewn bits of paper.
As Ores leads me through to the back of his office, he talks a mile a minute, peppering his banter with the occasional swear word, and stopping to ask me challenging questions that leave me stuttering awkwardly for longer than I’d like before he finally moves the conversation forward.
But his unconventional looks and tough demeanor are the least of what separates Ores from his mainstream colleagues. The real kicker is the radical and shockingly altruistic goal of the clinic he has run for more than 20 years: nonprofit, no-barrier health care for those who need it the most.
It works like this: Ores’s simple office on Second Street, just off Avenue A, has no staff, and no frills. He doesn’t accept insurance, but rather has clients pay him directly and gives them a receipt to file the insurance claim themselves if they have coverage.
The goal? To reduce the costs of his operation so that he can charge as little for his services as possible, especially for those without the luxury of health benefits.
“Because I don’t have a staff of five people and I’m not on Park Avenue, I can see you for $60. I don’t have to charge you $400, and I can probably make as much as the other guy makes paying $10,000 in rent with six employees,” he says.
And it’s a model he is actively trying to spread.
In order to prove that health care can be provided cheaply and efficiently, he started a program called the Restaurant Workers’ Health Care Cooperative, an initiative that allows restaurants in the Lower East Side to contribute a small amount of money per month to a pool fund that, in exchange, provides all of their employees unbridled access to Ores’s services.
Recently he convinced a doctor in Philadelphia to start a similar program, and has the dream of such programs eventually existing in every zip code in the United States.
Last week at the Lab Ores spoke about his practice, as part of Clayton Patterson’s five-part Sunday Salon series, which introduces Lab participants to the real, fascinating faces of the Lower East Side.
With the New York Lab Team’s focus on solutions to the tensions that exist within the city’s many systems, Ores’s ultimate message resonates deeply, far beyond the neighborhood’s borders: that sometimes the immediate solutions to systemic issues can only be found by stepping outside the system, and creating one yourself.
As the Bronx-based environmental justice and worker-ownership activist Omar Freilla takes the reigns of the Lab’s programming over the next two weeks, I will have the opportunity to investigate and discover many initiatives doing just this, most notably on the Alternative, Sustainable Economies Tour later this week.
I can only hope that the alternative systems I come across on the tour will be as surprising and inspiring as my visit with Dr. Dave.