BELL GARDENS : May Opening Set for Long-Delayed Clinic

In an area that has the highest birthrate in the state and in a city where medical care is scarce, a new family clinic scheduled to open in May will fit residents' needs perfectly, said one city official.

Although 43,000 people live within Bell Gardens' 2.4 square miles, the city has only three sources of health care: a small county clinic offering limited services and two private doctors' offices, said Susan Stemmler, executive director of Family Planning Centers of Greater Los Angeles, the nonprofit umbrella organization that will oversee the project.

"It's very unusual for there to be so little health care where there is such a big population," she said.

One reason Bell Gardens is so underserved by the medical community is that private doctors cannot make money in an area where many residents are poor and uninsured, Stemmler said.

"Physicians groups go into the city and can't stay open," Stemmler said. "One opened about a year ago and closed within six months."

When Stemmler surveyed residents, many said they traveled to Tijuana for health care and medicine.

The new clinic at 6501 Garfield Ave., which will be funded in part by the city, will offer family planning and prenatal care, general medical services, pediatric and dental care and, eventually, minor surgery, Stemmler said. Patients will be charged on a sliding scale according to their ability to pay.

City leaders have been trying to bring a public health care facility into the area for years, said City Manager Charles Gomez. "We all agree that the service is needed in the city, and we're all wringing our hands wondering when it would be open," he said.

Officials had hoped the clinic would open in January, he said, but the project has hit many snags since it was approved in November, 1992.

The property has been burglarized four times, including once when all the copper plumbing was stolen. Another problem arose when the former property owner sold off part of the parking lot--and with it parking spaces that the clinic needed to operate legally. To speed the clinic's opening, city leaders changed the law to allow businesses in a commercial-industrial district to have off-site parking.

Start-up costs for the project were about $500,000, Stemmler said, including $252,000 allocated from the city's federal Community Development Block Grant funds. The clinic should be financially self-sufficient within a year, Stemmler said.

The 17,000-square-foot facility will feature 18 examining rooms and eventually employ a staff of about 50, Stemmler said.

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