From Canyon To Cove: Making Laguna Beach a healthy place

It was 1970 and flower children were congregating in Laguna Beach, seeking free love and LSD. The inevitable results of all that partying and mind-expanding were taking a toll on the minds and bodies of the young — and on the resources of a small community.

In response, a group of civic-minded volunteer physicians got together and founded the Laguna Beach Free Clinic, one of a larger movement of free clinics around the country that sprang up to serve a huge, unmet need. The first Free Clinic opened up at Glenneyre Street and Park Avenue, according to Medical Director and Chief Operating Officer Dr. Tom Bent, who has been with the clinic since he was a volunteer doctor in the early 1980s while he was completing medical school.

The clinic eventually moved to Ocean Avenue where Anastasia's restaurant is now, before relocating to its current address, 362 Third St.

"There were a lot of artists and hippies, and in 1970 a lot of people didn't have health insurance," he said. The clinic was officially licensed in 1985.

Forty years later, the Laguna Beach Community Clinic carries on the tradition of responding to the needs of an ever-evolving population of underserved or unserved people, including immigrants, very low-income people and the uninsured, whose ranks have swelled as the economy has taken a nosedive over the past few years.

In the interim, the city became "ground zero" in the AIDS epidemic, with the highest per capita rate of HIV infection in the nation. This created an enormous challenge in medicine, to which the Laguna clinic responded in full force with resources and pioneering early-intervention treatment of HIV infection under the eye of Dr. Korey Jorgensen, a renowned AIDS physician.

"We were at the head of the epidemic," Bent said. "Up until the past two years, Laguna Beach had the highest incidence of AIDS in the country." That "honor" now goes to Miami-Dade County, Florida, which has knocked Laguna Beach to number two.

Bent says there are 150 men and women now being treated for AIDS at the clinic, which pioneered an early-intervention program for those who test positive for HIV. Many of these patients are treated at no cost under grants from the federal Ryan White program, but those funds are now in jeopardy, as the county has announced it may reduce the clinic's funding allotment, he said.

The clinic's AIDS treatment program has been so effective that some patients actually get better and are able to return to work, he added. But most continue to receive life-saving treatment at the clinic.

On World AIDS Day, Wednesday, the clinic will provide free rapid HIV testing at a health fair from 3 to 5 p.m. at Main Beach in Laguna. This is something the doctor advises everyone do.

"Do it. Get the test," he urged.

Bent is clearly proud of the clinic, which despite its small size provides more services than most modern doctors' offices, complete with a lab, a prescribing pharmacy, and even mammogram services from a portable machine. There is even a dental office in a newly renovated upstairs wing. He estimates that 17,000 patients walk through the small warren of offices every year.

In addition to its well-regarded AIDS program, the clinic has achieved notable success in the treatment of diabetes, under the management of Dr. Chau Ngo, who has developed state-of-the-art treatments. Ngo, who has been with the clinic for 10 years, is an example of the clinic's cadre of excellent and creative physicians who choose to work at the clinic rather than in a larger institution, where they would have to persuade higher-ups for approvals and cope with huge bureaucracies, Bent said.

Because of the economy, Bent said his staff is seeing many local residents who never thought they would set foot in a clinic for their medical needs. In addition to the newly unemployed, one in six working adults in Orange County have no health insurance, he said.

"We are serving local people more and more and a majority of our patients live or work in Laguna Beach," he said. These include many retail and restaurant employees and seasonal workers the city relies on for its economic well-being.

Despite the numbers served, the clinic is always in need of funds because fees and government payments simply don't meet the cost, he said.

"We are looking for donations all the time," he said. The clinic's website has a lengthy "wish list" for items ranging from $500 to $10 million.

This year, perhaps in response to the rising need for resident services, the clinic board of directors voted to create a new five-year goal: Healthy Laguna. "Healthy Laguna is a simple but audacious goal: to make Laguna the healthiest city in California over the next five years," Bent said. Dr. Pamela Lawrence, board chairwoman, is leading the design of this program, still in its infancy.

Another goal the board has approved is the creation of a $10-million endowment over the next five years to keep the clinic permanently in the black.

Some things haven't changed in 40 years: Laguna Beach still has a lot of artists, and there is still a need for local, accessible health care. One thing has: the clinic is no longer "free," but charges fees on a sliding-scale, in addition to relying on grants and donations.

For more information about the clinic and its services, call (949) 494-0761 or visit http://www.lbclinic.org.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 380-4321 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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