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Our Laguna: Clinic as vital to Laguna now as in 1970

The Laguna Beach Community Clinic began with a telephone hotline for folks with medical problems and no way to pay for medical care in the hippie-happy Laguna Beach of 1970. By October of that year, volunteers opened a free clinic, fostered by the late Dr. Eugene Atherton . Eugene Atherton and bail bondsman Ron Kaufman and riling some residents who feared the free medical care would draw “undesirables” to town.

Sound familiar?

“I was skeptical about it,” said former Police Chief Neil Purcell, a sergeant at the time. “We had so many flower children and hippies — and the Brotherhood [of Eternal Love] going strong at the time, I just thought how much more are we going to do to induce people to come to town who are looking for freebies.”

However, Purcell said this week that he later came to realize the clinic provided a needed service and had become a first-class medical facility.

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The clinic will be celebrating its 40th anniversary of service to the city at the annual Sunset Fiesta, a May 2 fundraiser at the Twin Points estate in North Laguna.

Support is needed now as it was when the clinic first opened its doors and its heart to the community.

The city was experiencing a virtual epidemic of hepatitis in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, due to needle exchanges and the influx of already infected folks, Purcell said. And the clinic addressed those needs.

One of the most valuable and lasting services the clinic offered was the recognition in the early 1980s that a mysterious virus that had cropped up worldwide and was devastating Laguna’s gay community must be contained, if not cured, by education and early treatment.

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The clinic earned the reputation of leadership in the treatment of the virus that came to be known as AIDS, which is no longer a death sentence but still not curable. Free anonymous testing for HIV and AIDS began in 1988 and continues today.

Other pioneering programs included the first free prenatal care for low-income women in South County, offered in 1982.

All services were free until 1986 when the clinic was forced to adopt a sliding fee scale due to cuts in government grants and the name was changed to Laguna Beach Community Clinic.

However, the clinic’s mission to provide quality medical care to folks who would never otherwise receive it has never been compromised, despite a shaky beginning and often hard times.

The economy wreaked havoc in 2009 on the clinic, with deceased financial support from the state and the largest increase in patients who have lost jobs and insurance. Doors were closed in many area clinics to new patients or those not qualified for Medi-Cal — but not in Laguna.

“In 39 years, LBCC has never limited access to care,” wrote registered nurse Mary Anderson in the November clinic newsletter.

Board member Susan Mas said Lagunans must come together to ensure the health of the clinic.

“It is really the Laguna way,” Mas said.

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That’s how it is now and how it was when the clinic volunteers saw the first patient at 422 Glenneyre St.

Early supporters included then-Councilman Charleton Boyd — no relation to Councilman Kelly Boyd Bob Mason, Anderson and Dr. Bill Long, among others. Residents raised funds with white elephant sales, wine tastings and dinners at local restaurants.

Hours of operation were limited to four nights a week, later augmented by two afternoons a week to accommodate seniors. Medical services focused on general health, sexually transmitted diseases, pap smears and birth control.

The clinic moved in 1972 to cramped quarters on Ocean Avenue, where the posh Anastasia is now. The waiting room was on the front porch.

Dr. Bill Anderson, who practices at the Sleepy Hollow Clinic, just doors up from Anastasia’s, drafted young doctors stationed at the defunct Marine Corps Air Station El Toro to volunteer time at the struggling clinic — including Dr. Korey Jorgensen.

Jorgensen didn’t dream that he would still be at the clinic three decades later.

“Bill asked me to take a look and it seemed like a great idea to provide free care to people who couldn’t afford it,” Jorgensen said. “My interest grew as the clinic grew.”

Jorgensen was serving as medical director when he became convinced that the clinic needed a full-time employee at the helm, a job he didn’t want.

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“I assisted in the search and [Dr.] Tom Bent was the best candidate and he has done a great job ever since,” Jorgensen said.

Bent and Jorgensen were named the 2010 Patriots Day Parade Citizens of the Year. Both have been honored as family physicians — Jorgensen by the California Academy of Family Physicians, of which Bent is the president, in 2004 and Bent by the Orange County Academy in 2009. Bent has served as medical director and chief operations officer since 2005.

Over the years, clinic services expanded. A Crisis Intervention and the Sexual Assault Prevention program began in 1975. A counseling center opened at 364 Ocean Ave. in 1984 and continued to operate there until 1989. Outreach program Clinic Without Walls began servicing schools and health fairs in 1991. The Mobile Medical van was bought in 2003, funded by Cedillo/Alarcon Medical Clinic.

Medical services today range from dental care to diabetes management, pap smears to podiatry, cardiology to counseling on smoking cessation, conducted at the building at 362 Third St., which the clinic bought in 1994.

Since then, according to a history published in the clinic newsletter:

 The clinic entered into an 18-month affiliation with UC Irvine in February 1995, which continued until the university abruptly pulled out of the arrangement in 1996.

 South Coast Medical Center began providing financial assistance in 1996, obviously no longer in place.

 Friends of the Community Clinic was founded in June 2003.

 Urgent care was expanded to six nights a week in 2006.

 Upgrades to the building began in 2006, starting with improvements in the children’s area. The driveway was repaved, funded by donations from board member Bill DeLand and others, in 2007. A new roof has been installed, air conditioning replaced, a new reception desk and furniture added. Art donated by local artists, clinic supporters, board members and patients brighten the walls.

“It is fortunate that all the upgrades were completed before the economy tanked,” said Monica Prado, clinic development director.

Now more than ever, donations are needed to keep the clinic operating.

About 17% of the clinic’s funding comes from the public. Reimbursement programs do the heavy lifting, accounting for 39% of funding. Patients payments add up to about 8% of the funding, at $20 a visit, typically, not close to the clinic’s estimated per-visit cost of $162.

Government grants bring in 36%, so the $300,000 drop in 2009 really hurt.

The clinic has received many financial awards and grants over the years, the first in 1973: $1,000 from the Disneyland Foundation. The city kicked in an interest-free $30,000 loan in 1985.

Major grants included $20,000 from the Harry and Grace Steel Foundation: $50,000 from the Irvine Health Foundation: $21,500 from the United Way Community Care; and a share of the Tobacco Settlement Revenue to fund a full-time dental clinic.

Grants for AIDS education, test and treatment HIV testing include an annual grant from the Ryan White CARE Act, starting in 1980; $50,000 from the state Department of Health, $15,000 from San Diego Gas & Electric and $10,000 from the Orange County Register, all in 1988: $5,000 from the city in 1992; and $40,000 from AIDS Walk Orange Count in 1996.

That’s in the past. Help is needed now, clinic officials said.

The annual Sunset Fiesta is a major fundraiser. The event at Twin Points will include strolling through some of the most dramatic gardens in Laguna, sipping margaritas while overlooking Heisler Park, and partaking of Mexican food and enjoying live entertainment and dancing. Proceeds from the $120 tickets will go toward Neighbors in Need, which will care for the newly uninsured patient population in Laguna.

Visit www.LBClinic.org or call (949) 494-0761.


OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Write to Barbara Diamond, P.O. Box 248, Laguna Beach, 92652; call (949) 380-4321 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com


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