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City lights: Putting a face to the problem

For the last eight years, Shirley Dettloff has gone in for regular appointments at a clinic whose patients appear far removed from her own walk of life.

She drives her own car to the waiting room at 8041 Newman Ave., while many of the other clients walk or take the bus. She sits in the small waiting room, surrounded by young families with strollers, and often surmises that she is the only person in the room with health insurance.

Dettloff, the former mayor of Huntington Beach, joined the Huntington Beach Community Clinic board of directors shortly after leaving the City Council in 2002. The rules of the clinic, overseen by the Los Angeles-based group AltaMed, stipulate that 51% of board members must be patients there. So Dettloff has gone in for treatment for nearly a decade among some of the least privileged residents of the city she once governed.

I don’t have any experience running health clinics, but that sounds to me like a remarkably efficient way to ensure that services are first-rate. And it filled me with even more hope Tuesday morning when Dettloff and Kim Jones, the development officer for AltaMed, took me on a tour of the clinic before its 10-month renovation begins this weekend.


Earlier this year, I wrote a three-part series on the Obama administration’s health-care reform, which, predictably, has more than a few detractors in an area as conservative as Huntington Beach. As one who tries to stay away from partisan politics, I can see the arguments on either side of the reform. It’s true that health care in America is expensive for many and unattainable for many others; it’s also true that the reform raises plenty of questions about how to pay for all the new patients and where to find enough doctors and clinics to cover them.

Any federal program as sweeping as Obamacare, as some detractors label it, is bound to result in winners and losers. I doubt even our City Council could create a health plan that would please all 200,000 residents in town. Still, it’s hard to imagine that health-care reform won’t ease the burden for at least a few people, and that’s what Dettloff and her colleagues, who planned the renovation in anticipation of the reform increasing the number of patients, are hoping as they wait for the crews to arrive.

The two-story building, a stone’s throw away from Huntington Beach Hospital, contains 14 examination rooms and units for general medicine and pediatrics. When I walked through it Tuesday, it was already in the throes of renovation; the word “demo” was scrawled in red on walls awaiting the wrecking ball. Meanwhile, patients still flowed in and out, as they will every week as the construction crews pound away.

One aim of the renovation, Jones said, is to condense all the clinic’s services to a single building. That means moving the dental clinic in-house and also installing a blood-testing lab on the first floor. AltaMed isn’t just doing that for its own convenience; many patients, she explained, would have to walk or take the bus around town, sometimes with children in tow, to make all their appointments.


It’s those people who Dettloff sees whenever she passes the major hospitals in town and comes in for a checkup. And it inspires her to work harder to raise funds for the clinic, she said.

“Like any board, when you’re not on the ground level, you don’t have a face,” she said. “I have a face every time I come here.”

In the grand scheme of health-care reform, it’s one of many.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at