It was 1970 and flower children were congregating in
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
"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
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.
"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
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
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.