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Long-Sought Clinic Opens : 1st Permanent South County Public Health Facility Attracts Lots of Patients After Years of Waiting

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Little Cassady Ozimec was a reluctant first patient.

While the doctors and nurses rushed about excitedly Tuesday during the opening of the county’s first permanent public-health clinic in the South County, Cassady did what most 23-month-old babies might do. He cried.

“He hasn’t even had his shot yet,” said his mother, Liz Ozimec of South Laguna as she took him to a waiting doctor for a checkup. When the clinic opened at 11:30 a.m., 14 other mothers and children joined the Ozimecs in the waiting room--a gathering that doctors and nurses agreed was an impressive turnout. “They have been coming since 9 this morning,” a nursing supervisor said.

The community itself has been waiting for such a clinic for years.

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Situated at 27512 Calle Arroyo, next to C. Russell Cook Park, the clinic was established as a result of a five-year county study on the unmet health needs of the rapidly growing South County area, according to Len Foster, the county’s deputy director of public health. Previously, the county had set up temporary clinics in high school auditoriums, local Boys Clubs and wherever officials could find an empty space.

“I think we will do great things over the long term,” Foster said. “This really is a statement that public health is recognizing the growth in the South County.” The nearest similar county clinics are in Santa Ana and Costa Mesa, although there are privately funded, all-volunteer clinics in San Juan Capistrano and Laguna Beach.

The county clinic will specialize in preventive care for low-income and Medi-Cal patients, Foster said. Among the services that the low-cost clinic will provide--on a sporadic basis at first--are health care for children, immunizations, prenatal care, family planning, and diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis.

Foster estimates that the clinic will treat 200 patients a month at the start and could expand to perhaps 600 patients monthly within a year. Most of its services will be provided free.

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Two of the most dire needs in the area are family planning and health care for low-income patients, Foster noted.

“The county has been seeking a new site for a family planning clinic in that area for the past three years. It’s one of those services you can’t run out of an elementary school auditorium,” Foster said. There are few doctors in the South County who will take Medi-Cal and low-income patients in their private practices, he explained.

Funding for the clinic will come from money already budgeted to public health care, Foster said. The clinic’s staff will be borrowed from other sites during the start-up phase.

“We are sort of taking the funds out of our hides. That’s why the clinic was so slow in starting up,” Foster said. “We have not received additional funding to staff it.”

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The clinic’s arrival was heralded by several public health professionals in the South County.

“It’s a terrific new development,” said Chauncey Alexander, the chairman of the United Way Health Care Task Force. “We have been trying to get the county to do this for a long time.”

Gary Erb, executive director of the Laguna Beach Community Clinic, also applauded the clinic’s debut but with some reservations.

“We welcome the opening of this clinic. The need is overwhelming, much more than any of us individually can do,” Erb said. “I do have some concern about the location, which I think may provide a difficult access to many of its clients.”

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The new clinic sits on the opposite side of Interstate 5 from the nearest bus station, which is at Mission San Juan Capistrano, more than half a mile away.

Foster said one reason the new site was chosen was its proximity to C. Russell Cook Park, a well-known South County location. He has also talked with the Orange County Transit District about the possibility of added bus service to the area, but nothing has come of that yet.

“Patients who need the services will find a way to get there,” Foster said. Health officials are trying to get OCTD to reroute a bus nearer the clinic, Foster said.

The clinic’s schedule of services includes:

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* Tuesdays: Young children’s health clinic from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; adolescent pediatric clinic for children ages 7 to 13 from 4 to 8 p.m.

* Thursdays: Family planning and pregnancy testing from 8 a.m. to noon.

Starting Aug. 21, the federally funded Women, Infants and Children Supplemental Food Program will operate out of the clinic all day, two Wednesdays a month. The program provides nutritional education and food vouchers for pregnant, postpartum, and nursing women and their children.

Starting on Aug. 26, the clinic will offer immunizations for school-age children from 2 to 5 p.m. on a walk-in basis.

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