BELL GARDENS : New Clinic to Offer Affordable Care

When many local residents get sick, they say, they cross their fingers and hope they will get better tomorrow, or they trek all the way to Tijuana for inexpensive medical attention.

But within days they will need only go as far as Gage and South Garfield avenues for affordable care.

The Family Planning Centers of Greater Los Angeles will soon open a Family Medical Center at 6501 S. Garfield Ave. Patients will be charged on a sliding scale, based on what they can afford, and clinic staff members expect that most people with Medi-Cal benefits will not be asked to pay.

The clinic is scheduled to open this week or next, pending the approval of state health inspectors and fire inspectors.

With little time left to prepare, the staff was working last week around unopened boxes and unassembled chairs. No signs were on the freshly painted walls, only scraps of paper taped to doors identifying which room was which.

"There is a big need here," said Susan Stemmler, executive director of the Family Planning Centers of Greater Los Angeles and the driving force in getting the local clinic open. "For a lot of people, health care is the last priority."

Stemmler and others said that the city's poorer residents typically shun local, traditional health care because it is too expensive, or they seek temporary relief from relatives who profess to know a thing or two about herbs or massages.

"People just don't know how to access health care," she said. "Or they have gotten burned by places offering free tests (such as pregnancy tests) only to walk out with a huge bill that they cannot manage."

Stemmler said there are few private doctors in town and a county-run health facility is overcrowded. "With such poverty rates," Stemmler said. "the (population) just can't support physicians."

Bell Gardens has an unemployment rate of about 13%, which is almost double the national average. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, its teen pregnancy rate is among the highest in California. There is also a formidable problem with communicable diseases because many children have not been immunized, Stemmler said.

At a sister clinic in South Gate, where some Bell Gardens residents currently go, Stemmler said, children as old as 7 receive shots that should have been given when they were infants. "The biggest problems in the area are pediatric services and prenatal care," Stemmler said.

The new clinic is in a building that four years ago was an industrial medical center.

The clinic will employ 17 or 18 people, including a family physician, a pediatrician and a nurse practitioner. Another nurse in training will join the staff this month and Stemmler is trying to arrange for specialists from regional hospitals to rotate through the clinic. In the first year, the clinic is anticipating 100 patients per day.

Stemmler said the clinic will take appointments and walk-ins and will be open weekdays during business hours and on Saturday. There will be 17 examination rooms, including pediatrics, prenatal care, dentistry and X-rays.

Because it relies on government subsidies, not all services will be available on opening day, Stemmler said. The most urgent needs will be answered first, and such things as dental service and eye exams will come later, she said.

Magda Endara, a counselor, and Estela Herrera, a medical assistant, were both transferred from the South Gate clinic to the one in Bell Gardens.

"A lot of people already know we are here," Herrera said. "And one person will tell another and another. That is the way it works."

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