More than 5,000 clients now receive Medi-Cal benefits, paving the way for expansion of services
By Paul M. J. Suchecki
The Westside’s largest community health center is weathering the sea change of Obamacare with optimism, hoping to expand a client base that already exceeds 24,000 low-income Westside residents.
Meeting the demands of the Affordable Care Act was a major challenge for the Venice Family Clinic, but the effort is paying huge dividends.
“We have worked for the last two years to identify people who would be eligible. Because of that extraordinary work by our staff, we were able to move 5,000 patients into Medi-Cal,” said Elizabeth Benson Forer, the Venice Family Clinic’s chief executive officer of more than 20 years.
Prior to national health care reform taking effect this year, low-income adults had to prove a disability or care for small children to qualify for Medi-Cal.
“Now any low-income adult can be on Medi-Cal,” Forer said. “We’re hiring more doctors so we can see more folks.”
However, the biggest challenge clinic patients still face is accessing care in a timely manner, particularly when it comes to specialists.
One back pain patient complained last month that he couldn’t get an appointment for an initial surgery consultation until July.
But Forer rejects fears that reform amounts to a rationing of care and credits volunteers with helping the clinic meet growing demand for health care by those who formerly didn’t have access.
“Our system has rationed for years by simply saying to poor people you don’t get any care. Unless there’s a true emergency, everybody at some point waits in the health care system,” she said.
“The problem with the system for low-income folks is that if there are long delays in specialty care, they will [still] end up in the emergency room,” Forer continued. “I think there will be a surge of care until folks stabilize and then you’ll see an ability to make the population healthier over time.”
Since many new Venice Family Clinic patients have not been to a doctor in a while, intake starts with a comprehensive screening to establish health benchmarks.
“When we look at children, we make sure that they’re hitting their developmental milestones,” Forer said. “For teens we assess their entire lives: health, education, drugs, sex and relationship with parents.”
Founded in 1970, the clinic now operates nine locations, including teen centers on Venice Boulevard and at Culver City and Santa Monica high schools.
The clinic’s extremely comprehensive approach includes dentistry, exercise and yoga classes, programs to combat domestic violence and obesity, access to mental health workers and even filling medication prescriptions on-site. Last year, the clinic received $13 million in donated medications to distribute to its clients, said Forer.
Dr. Myles Spar, director of integrative medicine at the clinic, said the organization’s goal is to address “a patient’s whole being.” That includes acupuncture and chiropractic services, “especially helpful for our patients with chronic pain from working as day laborers, gardeners and nannies,” he said.
At a Rose Avenue location, Venice Family Clinic workers see 3,800 homeless patients each year, many with mental health and substance abuse issues. The clinic offers lockers for the homeless to secure their belongings and a place to shower before seeing a doctor.
Spar said care is guided by the belief that “good health care is a fundamental right of all people, regardless of ability to pay or status of residency.”
Despite reports that Latinos have underenrolled in Obamacare throughout the country, the Venice Family Clinic has seen better results.
More than 60 percent of the clinic’s patient population is Latino. In fact, it’s one of the few places in Los Angeles where a caller has to press No. 2 to get to English on the phone system.
“We’re finding our patients are signing up just fine. Our health insurance enrollment staff is bilingual, bicultural. They’re reaching out to our Latino clients as well as our homeless clients in a very hands-on way,” Forer said.
Spar said he sees a range of patients, “from previously well-insured, financially comfortable people who have fallen on harder times to the working poor who have historically been the ones least well-served in the U.S. health care system, to people suffering with mental disorders, homelessness and substance abuse.”
One patient, a middle-aged man in a frayed shirt and blazer who identified himself simply as Michael, said he lost his health insurance after being laid off more than a year ago.
“The clinic has been a lifesaver, literally, because as work became harder to find, the stress started to build up. I was starting to get light-headed, flushed and [would] sweat when I met people. When I had my first examination at the clinic, my blood pressure was through the roof, a problem I’d never had before. I got my medication here that day. With the numbers I had, I could have had a stroke or heart attack.”
If you’re interested in volunteering, there’s ample opportunity. There are 250 resident physicians in training and another 250 volunteer doctors at large. Another 2,000 volunteers help with administrative work and play an important role in setting the tone for client visits.
“Our patients trust us, they know us, and they see that there’s caring beyond just the physical problem that brought them in that day,” Forer said.
On May 18, the Venice Family Clinic hosts its biggest fundraising event of the year. The 35th annual Venice Art Walk and Auction centers around Google’s headquarters at 340 Main St., and volunteers for the free and fundraising portions of the event are still needed. RSVP at venicefamilyclinic.org/volunteers/artwalk.
For more information on Art Walk activities, call (310) 664-7916 or visit theveniceartwalk.org.