On the Front Lines of Orange County’s Health Care Crisis

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High blood sugar, ear infections, bronchitis, severe headaches, anemia, plantar fasciitis, bulging disk, hernia — these were just some of the maladies of more than 50 patients seen at Lestonnac Free Clinic in Orange last week during a special walk-in day to commemorate National Health Center week.

Lestonnac is one of 26 health centers, also known as community clinics, in Orange County. With a total of 67 locations, they all are nonprofits that care for low-income patients, accepting Medi-Cal, billing patients what they can afford to pay and in some cases charging nothing.

Executive Director Ed Gerber said Lestonnac is now the largest free clinic in the state and the only clinic in the county that accepts no payment for medical and dental care. It is the last resort for uninsured patients, including those who need specialty physicians. And like all community clinics, it has seen its patient population surge in the Great Recession years, with 23,000 visits last year.

Countywide the number of patients served annually at community clinics hit 300,000 in 2011, compared with 186,000 five years ago, according to Isabel Becerra, CEO of the Coalition of Orange County Health Centers.

“There is such a need just to get in and see a doctor,” Gerber said.

As a result, Lestonnac recently created a Bridge to Care program run mainly at satellite clinics to temporarily treat patients without regular care while they try to obtain public insurance. But, Gerber said, the budget climate is growing even more restrictive with grant money harder to get, and he is bracing for cutbacks.

“The future is scary for community clinics,” he said.

Already after a loss of $100,000 in Tobacco Settlement Revenue funds earlier this summer, Lestonnac had to make cuts to its nursing staff, though Gerber managed to get doctors to volunteer to fill the gap created by the shortfall.

— AMY DePAUL

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