By Lisa Wells
OC Voice Staff Writer
Over 40 million Americans are uninsured and the nation’s 1,300 public hospitals cannot handle the resulting burden.
So many patients are flooding hospital emergency rooms that one in five E.R. doctors knows of a patient who died due to waiting too long for care, according to a survey conducted last year by the American College of Emergency Physicians.
The privatization of public health care by the Orange County Board of Supervisors in the 1980s means that Orange County is now one of three counties in California without a public hospital. And because 500,000 O.C. residents lack health insurance, emergency rooms often serve as their only option.
One small but vital exception to the county’s lack of affordable healthcare is the non-profit Huntington Beach Community Care Health Center.
“We’re the safety net,” says Shirley Detloff, chair of the Center’s health council. “The health care system is failing throughout the United States and people are literally dying due to a lack of access to health care.”
Detloff, a former H.B. mayor, is dedicated to the Center’s mission: “To lead in providing high quality, affordable, accessible health care to people in need.”
The federally accredited clinic was opened 38-years-ago in response to community need by ten mental health interns who each put $200 down for a store front and placed an ad in the newspaper. Within a week they had a doctor.
The Center still exists and has grown into a complete health care facility due to the overwhelming efforts of volunteers and great community support, says Detloff.
Over 14,000 people receive care at the H.B. facility alone and a total of 24,000 patients are served under
“If we were to go away tomorrow the system would flood,” says Jacqueline Ritacco, vice president of Orange County Operations for AltaMed Health Services Corporation, the Center’s newly-merged partner and the state’s largest nonprofit community medicine corporation.
The main clinic in Huntington Beach is due for an expansion, but even if it increased its current capacity by 240 percent it would still reach only half of the county’s medically underserved population, says Ritacco.
Ritacco says that the merger will bring better health care for patients, but adds that, “At the end of the day, merger or no merger it’s the same work…We’re trying to build a business on people who can’t pay us. Anyway you look at it, it’s just plain hard work.”
The Center keeps fees as low as possible and seeks every possible funding source in order to complete its mission. “We try to eligibilize (sic) patients for whatever [outside funding] source they may be qualified for and we have sliding-scales fees based on income and family size,” says Ritacco.
But 20 percent of its patients cannot pay anything. Out of a $10 million dollar budget, only $200,000 was collected from patients last year for services rendered. Funding comes mostly from Medi-Cal and grants. Corporate, government and private funds are also essential, but funds are always short in the face of growing need and a failing healthcare system.
One popular fundraising event is the annual Duck-A-Thon. Huntington Beach resident Donna Cross founded the event 17-years-ago and this year 4,000 rubber duckies, which went for $20 apiece, were set afloat around the H.B. pier during the three-day event.
As the Huntington Beach Community Care Health Center grows, Ritacco joins Detloff to acknowledge its roots and its life support system. “This truly does not exist without its community-it’s owned by its community, it’s loved by its community, it’s supported by its community and it’s only by those people that it will continue to be strong.”
Huntington Beach Community Care Health Center
8041 Newman Ave., Huntington Beach 92647
Hours: M,W, 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m; T, Th, 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m; Fri, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Closed Sat. & Sun.